29 october 2018

Climate and coal collide in Ill. governor race

Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter
Published: Monday, October 29, 2018

Coal has largely disappeared from blue states in America, but Illinois is a notable exception.

Only Texas consumes more coal than the Land of Lincoln, and southern Illinois has some of the most productive coal mines east of the Mississippi.

That helps explains why coal interests and climate hawks are closely watching the gubernatorial contest between Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor, and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune.

Rauner has sought to walk a tightrope on energy and climate issues during his four years in office, simultaneously signing a bill to boost nuclear and renewables while quietly cultivating a relationship with the state's downstate coal miners.

Pritzker, by contrast, has said he wants to put the state on track to generate 100 percent of its power from renewables and join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a collection of mostly blue states seeking to uphold the terms of the Paris climate accord.

"If we want to have national progress on accelerating clean energy development and climate change solutions, then we need to engage the middle of the country," said Howard Learner, who leads the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. "And Illinois is pivotal to the heartland."

The race represents one of the best gubernatorial pickup opportunities for Democrats this fall. Pritzker has consistently led Rauner by double digits in polling. Should Pritzker prevail, Democrats would take complete control of all three branches of government in Springfield, the state capital.

Coal and climate haven't figured prominently in the race. Few policy issues have. The two men, who have poured a combined $200 million into the race, have spent most of their time disparaging each other's character. Rauner, a former equity investor, has savaged Pritzker for a tax break taken on an empty mansion; Pritzker has hammered Rauner for a breakout of Legionnaires' disease at a state-run veterans home.

Yet the stakes for energy and climate are considerable. Unlike liberal states along the coasts, which have largely retired their coal plants in recent years, Illinois consumed 38 million tons of coal in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The state's power sector accounted for more than a third of the 219 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted by Illinois' energy industry in 2015, the most recent year for which federal data are available. That's more than any other sector of the state's economy.

The next governor has big decisions to make that could decide the state's energy trajectory for years to come. First, there's the Future Energy Jobs Act, a 2016 piece of legislation that provided $2.4 billion in subsidies to two struggling nuclear plants and dialed up a big increase in new renewable energy production (Energywire, Dec. 2, 2016). Implementing that law figures to be a big task for the next governor.

The law requires the installation of 3,000 megawatts of solar power, and environmentalists want to see that happen quickly. Coal interests, meanwhile, have been lobbying for subsidies of their own to help struggling downstate coal plants owned by Vistra Energy Corp.

That points to a second issue facing the next governor. Rauner had proposed weakening the air quality standards governing the Vistra plants, but the proposal was largely knocked back by the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Instead, the board issued a compromise proposal, and whoever is appointed to the board by the next governor could decide the outcome of the case (Energywire, Oct. 5).

Coal interests are closing following the race. Illinois electricity plants generally don't use coal mined in the state, relying instead on cleaner-burning low-sulfur coal from Wyoming to comply with Clean Air Act standards. But mining permits issued by the state are important for downstate mining firms, which are active in the export market.

Joe Craft, an Oklahoma coal executive with close ties to President Trump and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, has given Rauner's campaign $25,000. Murray Energy Corp., led by Trump ally Bob Murray, chipped in $15,000 to a federal political action committee associated with the governor.

"During his tenure we've seen an improvement in the office of mines and minerals and the Illinois EPA in getting our permits done in a timely manner," said Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, a trade group representing the state's mining firms.

Rauner has rarely addressed climate change during his tenure, but Pritzker has made it part of his campaign pitch. In a recent interview on WBEZ radio, Pritzker said Illinois had an obligation as a large greenhouse gas emitter to tackle the climate challenge. And he argued that clean energy jobs could replace those lost in Illinois mines.

"We need to create jobs in those areas of the state. And actually there are clean energy jobs we could replace them with in those areas of the state," he told the Chicago radio station. "You may know Iowa has done a terrific job in wind energy. Illinois has fallen behind. We need to do much, much more."

That is music to the ears of greens like Kady McFadden, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Illinois chapter. Environmentalists hope a Pritzker administration would undertake a more ambitious climate and energy agenda. Some have even begun talking about pursuing a carbon pricing plan should Democrats win a number of suburban Chicago state legislative districts.

Pritzker, McFadden said, "would be the most environmental governor to lead this state, he's said the boldest things of any governor or candidate. That gives us the ability to be bolder than before."

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