Even as coal ash wafted over Springfield, Dems couldn’t agree on a green-friendly energy bill

Blame Senate President Don Harmon. Blame Gov. J.B. Pritzker. But the talks failed.

SHARE Even as coal ash wafted over Springfield, Dems couldn’t agree on a green-friendly energy bill

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon and Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2020.

AP Photos

While a huge cloud of coal ash exploded around Springfield’s coal-fired electric power plant on Tuesday afternoon, Illinois’ top three Democrats huddled in a conference room at the Statehouse trying to find a way to slash power plant carbon emissions in the state to zero by 2045.

The irony was both unmistakable and irresistible.

The giant ash plume, caused by an equipment failure, dissipated hours later. But by then it also was clear that any attempt to pass a climate/energy bill by the end of the day was doomed — and that was a human failure.

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The Senate’s Democrats have controlled the negotiations on the climate/energy bill for more than two years, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office obviously has wanted to take control of the process from the start. They just think they know better, on this and many other topics.

That conflict has led to untold sniping, which is not surprising given that Pritzker and Senate President Don Harmon have battled since even before the governor backed a candidate against Harmon in the Senate president’s race in early 2020.

Pritzker walked away from the energy talks at the end of this past spring session when Harmon wouldn’t agree to close the state’s two municipally owned coal-fired electric power plants in Springfield and the Metro East by 2035. Pritzker again walked away in mid-June when Harmon tried to piggyback onto the week’s session agenda of correcting the House appropriations bill’s many fatal mistakes with a bill to fix the climate/energy bill. But Harmon ultimately couldn’t unite unions and environmentalists on the new legislation, though Pritzker by then had agreed to extend the coal plant closure dates to 2045.

Then history repeated itself last week when the General Assembly’s focus was supposed to be on the legislative remap do-over. Harmon couldn’t close the climate/energy deal talks amidst numerous large and small objections from the governor and the greens. Blame Harmon, blame Pritzker, blame whomever. The talks failed.

Three strikes, you’re out, etc., so now the ball is in Pritzker’s court. Harmon finally surrendered control and punted a climate/energy bill to the House, where Speaker Chris Welch has warned both Pritzker and Harmon that he isn’t moving a bill unless all three agree to it.

Harmon’s game plan obviously has been to appease trade unions in order to fund his party’s redistricting-year campaigns in 2022. Speaker Welch has never expected to receive the same level of support from the white-dominated trade unions that flooded the kitty of his predecessor Michael Madigan, so he appears to be aligning himself with our billionaire governor to help fund the 2022 campaign season.

But, in reality, maybe it was time to hand all this over to fresh eyes, because what the Senate was doing just didn’t move the ball forward enough.

The proceedings last week often devolved into petty one-upmanship.

The week’s initial Senate Democratic proposal imposed such strict limitations on carbon emissions by municipally-owned electric power plants like Springfield’s CWLP and the Metro East’s gigantic Prairie State Energy Campus that there was no likely way either plant could survive until 2045, though no closure date was inserted into the legislation. But the governor had demanded a “date certain” closure for both plants, so the Senate Dems drastically revised their bill to allow the plants to pump out 100% of the carbon they are currently spewing all the way through to 2045, and only then would they have to stop.

No way would that be acceptable. It was an almost juvenile response.

The governor’s office countered with a combination of proposals: Scale down the coal plants’ carbon emissions over the years and then shut everything down in 2045. The proposal was rejected out of hand.

Senate President Harmon told reporters that he believed it was too uneconomical for the companies to both reduce their carbon footprint and stop production before they’d finished paying for their pollution-reduction efforts. The governor’s office believes the plants qualify for federal tax credits to subsidize the step-down, and they want time to convince Prairie State to take the money and the deal. Word is that an offer has been made directly to the electricity provider.

Unless attitudes change, the whole thing might just turn out to be too big for a state legislature to tackle. Harmon called the energy bill the most complicated piece of legislation he’s dealt with in 21 years. He’s probably right.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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