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EDITORIAL: Illinois must green up as Trump continues to trash the environment

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers need to roll up their sleeves and put Illinois on a path toward cleaner energy before it’s too late.

Des Plaines Friday Oct. 17, 2014 Photo voltaic cells collect solar energy for use by Uniter Displaycraft in Des Plaines Friday Oct. 17, 2014. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media
Photovoltaic cells in Des Plaines in 2014.
Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

Illinois needs to step up for the environment as the Trump administration hands us a lump of coal.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the final version of its measure to supplant the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was designed to steer the nation away from climate-damaging coal-fired power plants. If upheld by the courts, the new rule would allow coal-fired power plants to operate longer and undercut efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

The EPA’s new plan is a direct assault on the environment. It shrugs off warnings that climate change threatens a million plant and animal species, sea levels are rising faster than expected and stronger storms and drought are afflicting the planet.

Nobody at the U.S. EPA seems to notice that after record-setting rains in May, many Illinois corn fields are so flooded that farmers are giving up on much of their planting for this year.

As the Trump administration tries to push the nation toward a greater reliance on climate-damaging coal-fired power plants, Illinois must move ahead on its own energy legislation to move the state away from fossil fuels.

Proposed energy legislation was pushed aside in the spring legislative session by other high-profile topics. But it’s time to get energy rules back on the front burner, including a bill pushed by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, the Clean Energy Jobs Act. This bill sets a goal of making Illinois’ power grid free of carbon-based fuels by 2030, and powering the entire state with renewable energy by 2050.

The bill would build on the successful energy bill that went into effect two years ago — the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers must put Illinois on a path toward those goals.

State Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, who introduced the Clean Energy Jobs Act in the Senate, is planning to call meetings in coming weeks to discuss the energy legislation. “We are going to push very hard to get this through in the [fall] veto session,” she told us.

There is little time for foot-dragging.

In addition to the new EPA plan, the Trump administration is poised to make changes to the so-called energy “capacity market” — a formula for assuring sufficient energy availability at all times — that covers all or part of 13 states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia. The effect would be to favor energy production from coal and other fossil fuels over solar, wind and nuclear energy. Instead, Illinois needs to nurture its renewable energy market.

“Changes in the capacity market threaten to undo a lot of gains we have made,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club. “We are not going to get to clean energy with a capacity market system that is propping up dirty coal plants.”

Typically, energy bills in Springfield emerge through an agreement among the interested parties. ComEd and Exelon have their priorities and some lawmakers have put forward their own ideas for a bill.

Whatever emerges should include these points:

  • The cost of adding renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy, must be offset by conservation and other steps to keep power bills down. Illinois residential ratepayers enjoy lower bills than people in surrounding states, and that advantage must be protected. Lawmakers should consider letting the Illinois Power Agency take over the role of the capacity market, keeping dollars in Illinois.
  • Making renewables a larger part of our energy portfolio requires a big push toward finding better ways to store energy, because the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow on a consistent basis. Environmentalists concede that, up to now, energy storage has not been pursued aggressively.
  • It’s not enough to add renewable sources of energy. Illinois also must boldly address carbon pollution, possibly with a carbon tax or a carbon cap.
  • Any final bill should give a share of new green jobs to people in economically distressed communities.
  • The final legislation also should include measures to help workers who are displaced from well-paying jobs at coal plants.

Backers of clean energy legislation fret that since being elected governor, Pritzker has been focused on other issues, other than signing a pact committing Illinois to meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. To get a good final bill in the fall, he will have to live up to his campaign promises and take charge. The governor’s office said Thursday he “applauds the Clean Jobs Coalition’s previous work, and looks forward to reviewing the bill.”

Last week, the Associated Press reported that America’s air no longer is getting cleaner. There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in the United States both last year and the year before than in 2013-2016, the cleanest four-year span since 1980.

Illinois must do all it can to combat climate change and make our environment cleaner.

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