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Commentary: The two faces of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s environmental strategy

Will Reynolds is an environmental advocate from Springfield, Illinois.

Will Reynolds is an environmental advocate from Springfield, Illinois.

By Will Reynolds

Governor Pat Quinn recently spoke at the annual dinner of the Illinois Environmental Council held in Chicago, where he was applauded as a longtime ally. His record as Governor reflects his commitment to clean energy and the environment. At least when he’s in Chicago.

When Quinn travels south, the tree-hugging Dr. Jekyll transforms into a dirty energy Mr. Hyde on issue after issue.

Environmentalists celebrated when Quinn vetoed a bill to provide rate increases for a coal-to-gas plant Leucadia Corp proposed in a heavily polluted area of southeastern Chicago.

But for southern Illinois, Quinn signed a bill to subsidize a similar coal-to-gas plant proposed near Mt. Vernon. When signing the bill Quinn claimed, “This important project will help revive the coal industry in southern Illinois.” The project eventually failed after plunging natural gas prices made it difficult for the company to find investors.

After taking opposite positions for the northern and southern ends of the state, what happened when a company asked for a mandatory rate increase to subsidize yet another coal gasification plant proposed in the central Illinois town of Taylorville? Quinn stayed publicly neutral.

Expanding coal exports

Leading climate change scientist James Hansen recently warned that burning all fossil fuels “would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.” At an event in Springfield, not long after becoming Governor, Quinn encouragingly called climate change the great challenge of our time.

Yet, earlier this year, Quinn bragged about setting a record for coal exports that made Illinois the fifth highest coal producing state. The release from Quinn’s office highlights efforts by his administration to build more coal export infrastructure and promote coal in foreign markets including, “supporting trade missions to the markets which represent the best prospects for Illinois coal, and potentially encouraging foreign investment in Illinois coal properties.” That will often mean nations with weak or non-existent pollution standards.

The Governor signed several bills to boost coal mining, including one to allow a surface mining operation in a state park, and another to ease the permitting process for strip mines. No, that’s not a joke. He actually leased 160 acres of a state park in southern Illinois for a strip mine.

As the expansion continues, residents in mining areas have to contend with a state Office of Mines and Minerals that’s notoriously cozy with industry and an EPA that will apparently issue a permit to even the worst mine proposed by habitual repeat offenders. Quinn’s failure to reform these agencies to better serve the public interest, rather than extraction special interests, is a disappointment to many residents in impacted communities.

People in poorer nations will experience higher cases of asthma, heart disease, birth defects, and learning disabilities among children as a result of burning Illinois’ high sulfur coal. Most Illinoisans may easily ignore those distant consequences, but not all of coal’s impacts can be exported. Destruction will continue in mining communities, and everyone will suffer the global consequences of climate change.

Clean jobs for northern Illinois – dangerous jobs for southern

A recent report on green job growth included a graphic showing that all clean energy jobs created so far this year were in the northern half of the state. That didn’t happen by accident. Illinois’ economic development agency, DCEO, does good work promoting clean energy jobs in some areas. But, their agenda in southern Illinois is dominated by the Office of Coal Development (OCD).

The OCD oversees most of the millions in taxpayer subsidies Illinois gives the coal industry annually. The fund helps keep old, polluting coal plants running, and encourages officials in rural Illinois to stay focused on coal as an economic development strategy. Predictably, waiting for the mines to re-open has largely kept coal country in poverty compared to other parts of the state.

The same office oversees a state funded propaganda campaign that lies to children about coal. Quinn has ignored appeals to rework or end the educational program distributed in schools that tells children fairy tails of how safe and clean coal really is.

Coal is America’s deadliest power source. Many of those deaths are caused by air emissions that contribute to respiratory problems and heart disease. The death toll also includes mining accidents, like the recent one at a Peabody mine in Saline county. Twenty people lost their lives in mine accidents last year. And despite preventative equipment, Black Lung still kills hundreds of miners and retired miners every year.

By allowing coal to set the agenda, Quinn is promoting safe, clean energy jobs for some of Illinois, while telling people further south they should be satisfied to base their economy on some of the most dangerous and deadly jobs in America.

A massive new assault on the environment

Quinn’s most controversial action on energy is to enthusiastically launch the Illinois fracking industry, which will become one of the most expansive assaults on the environment in state history. Quinn brags that his fracking rules will create jobs while protecting the environment. But, even groups who supported the bill admit it’s inadequate. Residents will now be subjected to a massive science experiment as we wait for more proof that fracking can’t be safely regulated in a region prone to flooding and earthquakes.

Quinn had other options. As Governor, he could have supported a moratorium and pledged to veto anything else. He could have asked his staff to craft stronger regulations with or without support from industry. Instead, he asked industry lobbyists to write legislation and invited his allies in statehouse green groups to go along.

Some legislators and environmental groups who helped write the regulatory bill claim it had to be passed because fracking is already happening in Illinois. Supporting inadequate regulation was better than than a fracking boom with no safeguards in place. They cited “breaking news” of a single fracking well already operating (in a county where vertical fracking has been going on for many years) as a pressure tactic to quickly pass the bill. But, if industry spokespersons are to be believed, there was no danger of widespread fracking happening without passage of a regulatory bill.

A lobbyist supporting the bill for the Illinois Manufactures Association said, “Industry is not going to move forward until there’s a regulatory framework in place. Each well costs five to 25 million dollars so they’re not going to make that type of investment unless they know the structure they’re operating under.”

An environmental attorney quoted by the Chicago Tribune explained, “If legislation doesn’t pass at some point this year, from the state’s perspective the risk is that the industry might invest elsewhere in other states that have more favorable conditions to invest in and develop these sorts of wells.” In the same article, the executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Energy Council claimed that, “without regulations in place, a tacit moratorium already exists.”

The head of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association said, “We agreed to the regulatory scheme because we felt like the alternative was a very real chance that we would end up with some type of moratorium.”

According to multiple industry experts, the most likely outcome of not passing a fracking regulatory bill this year would have been a continued delay of fracking, not the massive expansion of unregulated fracking environmentalists were threatened with.

The hazard presented by a single propagandist fracking operation will now be multiplied by hundreds and thousands of times thanks to Quinn and his allies who launched the fracking assault. Quinn could have supported a moratorium or at least slowed the process down for a thorough public discussion. It was rushed through the legislature with little debate because Quinn made fracking a personal priority as a job creation plan, and his allies in a few big green groups chose to cooperate despite the objection of the environmental grassroots.

Shortly after the fracking bill passed the legislature, Quinn announced a federally-backed loan for a wastewater treatment facility in Decatur by saying, “A region’s economic and environmental strength is based on the availability of clean water.” That’s exactly what worries people in fracking regions.

No environmental justice for rural areas

Illinois recently formed an environmental justice commission with most of the members appointed by Governor Quinn. The Environmental Justice Act states, “the principle of environmental justice requires that no segment of the population, regardless of race, national origin, age, or income, should bear disproportionately high or adverse effects of environmental pollution.” It also acknowledges that some communities suffer disproportionately from environmental hazards.

The commission includes representatives of organizations working in neighborhoods of the greater Chicago area that have been subjected to a greater share of deadly pollutants, in part because local residents typically don’t have the same resources to protect their neighborhood as wealthy communities. The commission currently includes no representative of organizations working in rural downstate communities impacted by mining and fracking.

Low-income rural areas face increased pollution impacts for many of the same reasons as urban communities of color. Small towns often support any project that promises jobs, no matter how dangerous and deadly, because they see no better alternative.

When signing the Environmental Justice Act, Quinn remarked, “We want to make sure that all Illinois families live in healthy communities. This commission will help us strengthen environmental laws so that every Illinois resident has clean air and clean water.” He signed a bill launching the fracking industry two months earlier.

Perhaps Quinn didn’t appoint anyone from rural downstate because it might force him to recognize that his policies make him one of the greatest perpetrators of environmental injustice in Illinois.

An Illinois tradition

Despite its waning national influence, coal is still powerful in southern Illinois, so it’s not surprising that Quinn panders to the industry as he moves south. Quinn isn’t the first Illinois politician to solicit support from both environmentalists and the coal industry. Rod Blagojevich, for example, sent massive subsidies to coal mines and power plants while also passing a renewable energy portfolio standard to increase wind power generation. This Illinois dynamic influenced Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy that provided billions in coal subsidies as part of the federal stimulus bill.

But, Quinn might be the first Governor to so shamelessly present himself as a courageous hero of the environmental movement when in Chicago while boasting with equal passion in southern Illinois about his commitment to expand destructive coal mining and fracking.

It’s more difficult to understand why major statewide environmental groups allow him to continue his Jekyll and Hyde routine without raising their voice in objection. The Illinois Environmental Council tweeted a comment after he spoke at their dinner that Quinn “always stands up for clean energy.” That’s only true if you turn a blind eye to his actions in the southern half of the state, which is apparently what many are doing.

Will Reynolds regularly writes from Springfield, Illinois at www.thereisaway.us

Comments (1)

Governor Quinn realizes that a community smothered in coal dust in southern Illinois might have around 3-4 thousand votes versus a coal contaminated Chicago area might have around 3-4 million votes. Votes in Illinois are valued more than the quality of life in a community.

By Mary Ellen DeClue on Oct 7, 2013