Work and Progress: Illinois Legislative Session Recap

You wouldn’t know it from some of the coverage evaluating the end of the Illinois General Assembly’s session last week, but along with the disappointments there were some very significant environmental victories. The failure to address some epic challenges lends itself to the normal stories of dysfunction and certainly there is some unfinished business. But we saw a lot of movement and positive outcomes for issues NRDC was engaged on, including:

  • Defeat of Tenaska Inc.’s proposal to build a $3.5 billion “clean coal” plant.  Tenaska has been trying to convince legislators in Illinois for the past five years to force electricity customers across the state to underwrite their unnecessary, dirty coal plant—forcing citizens and businesses to subsidize their plant for the next 30 years.  This is a major success for the environmental community in Illinois who largely united in opposition to stop Tenaska’s “clean coal” boondoggleNRDC worked with some of the state’s largest business interests, including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Manufacturers Association, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, to name a few, in a coordinated effort to put an end to the seemingly never-ending campaign to foist a dirty and expensive plant on Illinoisans.  After five long, hard-fought years, it has been stated that Tenaska will leave town which puts them far enough on their heels that it deserves a celebration. NRDC will continue with legal steps to challenge their construction permit, so that if they do decide to build the plant on their own dime, they will have to use the best technology available to control their pollution.
  •  Investing to save energy.  In 2011, lawmakers approved a law to allow electric utilities to begin making investments in modernizing the state’s electrical system, which included significant new investments in energy efficiency.  This year, NRDC worked with utilities, consumer advocates and others to ensure successful implementation of the new cost saving efficiency programs, which will reduce state-wide electricity demand.  This year we took steps to make sure all households – not just those who buy their electricity from their traditional utility – will have access to the energy saving incentives.   We estimate this will yield enough electricity savings to power 150,000 U.S. households over the next six years, creating 3,500 new jobs in Illinois by year 2015.
  • Defeat a backdoor effort to rejigger the state’s pollution enforcement.  A bill was introduced and defeated this year that would have fundamentally rewritten the Illinois Pollution Control Board’s mission to include not only the protection of public health, safety and welfare through issuance of emergency rules—but also to protect the polluters from the economic burdens caused by environmental regulations.  This overt assault on the Board, whose singular mission is to protect public health and safety from pollution, could have resulted in opening the floodgates for a series of environmental rollbacks on regulations put in place to protect us from the dangers of unmitigated pollution.  Luckily this legislation was never heard in the House of Representative after it was rammed through the Illinois Senate, in large part because of an intense lobbying effort by the environmental community–and Ann Alexander’s powerful blog post. I won’t forget seeing the color drain out of a legislator’s face after he read it, muttering something like “I didn’t know the rule did that.”
  • Shark fin ban helps Illinois stand up for healthy oceans.  The General Assembly passed a measure this session to ban the sale, trade, possession or distribution of shark fins in Illinois.  This is a major victory for sharks and Illinois.  Sharks are under great duress with an estimated 26-73 millions sharks being killed each year, in large part because of overfishing for their fins—a key ingredient used in shark fin soup.  NRDC worked with our friends at the Humane Society of Illinois and the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (C.O.A.R.E.) to win a victory on this important conservation measure.  On May 15, 2012, legislation passed to protect sharks by breaking the demand for their fins in the Prairie State and was sent to the Governor’s desk where we hope it receives the distinct honor of being signed into law. 
  • Replumbed Plumbing code. NRDC worked with allies in Springfield and across the state to support the passage of legislation that mandates a timeline for an update to the Illinois Plumbing Code—a code that hasn’t been updated in decades.  We estimated that Illinoisans could save almost 11 million gallons of water per day just from bringing efficiency standards for toilets up to date.  Increasing the efficiency of showerheads could save more than 24 million gallons of water per day and save consumers about $150,000,000 million per year in water, electricity and gas savings combined.  At the same time, having the State’s Plumbing Code recognize the value of alternate water uses like graywater and rainwater will make those systems easier and more affordable to install, and demonstrate the State’s commitment to these newer technologies.  The Metropolitan Planning Council and the Illinois Department of Public Health are convening a series of stakeholder meetings ahead of the formal rule-making process.  NRDC will continue to advocate for best practice policies that ensure safe and efficient utilization of our water resources, while saving consumers money. 

Obviously, the environmental stories coming out of Springfield will continue to be a mixed bag.  Not all policy goals envisioned at the beginning of a session can be won in a single year, and unfortunately not all efforts to weaken environmental standards can be stopped. 

Illinois, in the last year, has enacted two coal generation proposals in an effort to revive demand for Illinois’ high sulfuric bituminous coal.  They are new sources of pollution that will soak consumers across the state for billions in subsidies.  Leucadia National Corp. wants to build what they deem a “clean coal” derived synthetic natural gas plant on Chicago’s Southeast Side.  The problem: none of the state’s utility companies want to buy their overpriced dirty gas (three to four times current market rates); and no private investor wants to put up the cash until the plant owners can find a customer for their product.  So the legislature stepped into the breach, again forcing Illinois utility companies to purchase the expensive gas (meaning you and I; through our utility bills).  NRDC will be renewing our call on Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to veto Senate Bill 3766 to protect consumers from unnecessary rate hikes; and to protect the environment from a project which has clearly put the cart in front of the horse—not yet having received an air permit which is minimally required before construction can commence.

Finally, one of the state’s biggest environmental and economic challenges has come before the General Assembly, hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”—a controversial process to extract natural gas and oil from shale formations found thousands of feet below the surface.  My colleague, Thom Cmar, recently joined me in Springfield in the final day of session and blogged about his experience. It is hugely important for the General Assembly to get fracking regulations on the books ASAP to protect our state’s land and water resources as a leasing rush in southern Illinois transforms into a likely drilling boom.  The legislature has adjourned for now—but will no doubt be called back to deal with unfinished business like pension reform.  Given the complete lack of safeguards on the books in Illinois to protect our health and drinking water from fracking, we urge the legislature to revisit the unfinished business of addressing the risks from fracking in the extra summer session, too.