Pritzker threatens to veto clean energy compromise backed by labor unions

Politics

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Less than an hour after Senate Democrats and trade unions hailed a clean energy compromise deal as a job-saving, planet-protecting, corruption-fighting measure that would protect Illinois consumers and “benefit our entire state,” Governor J.B. Pritzker shot the idea down with a veto threat before it could reach the Senate floor for a vote.

“Any energy package needs to lead with ethics and transparency, needs time to be vetted, and must end carbon emissions by a date certain,” Pritzker’s office said in a Monday night statement. “HB3666, a bill that was not agreed to by environmentalists nor negotiated with all stakeholders, falls short of that standard, and if it reaches the Governor’s desk, he will veto it. The Governor remains committing to finalizing a bill that put consumers and the climate first, moves us to a zero emission future, and leads with ethics and transparency.”

The House and Senate are scheduled to return for a one-day “special session” on Tuesday to address legislative redistricting, but top negotiators were also positioning bills for a potential vote on clean energy while lawmakers are in town.

Senate Majority Caucus Whip Mike Hastings (D-Frankfort) filed the new amendment on Monday morning and pitched it to his colleagues in the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee on Monday afternoon.

Before Hastings had finished making the case for his amendment, calling it “the most sweeping decarbonization bill in the entire country,” environmental activists at the Sierra Club of Illinois were publicly attacking his plan because they said it “fails to act on the urgency of the climate crisis and gives a free pass to the Prairie State coal plant, the largest polluter in Illinois.

“Legislators continue to cater to fossil fuel interests,” the Sierra Club said about his proposal.

“Well that’s not true at all,” Hastings shot back. “Any private coal company across the state is going to be closed by 2030.”

The Hastings amendment, however, would allow municipally owned coal-fired power plants like Prairie State Generating Company in Marissa and City, Water, Light and Power in Springfield to remain open beyond 2045 if they could convince the Illinois Commerce Commission that they have captured, cleaned, or offset their total carbon emissions by 105%. Hastings said if those coal-fired power plants could use a combination of technologies that amount to “net-zero carbon emissions,” they would be allowed to stay open.

“They can do that through various mechanisms, whether that’s scrubbers, whether that’s air capture technologies which takes carbon out of the out of the air, or they can do carbon sequestration,” he said, referring to a relatively new and yet-untested method of burying carbon gas emissions deep underground in naturally occurring reservoirs.

Environmental activists at the National Resources Defense Council cast doubt on whether the coal plants could actually achieve those results, and highlighted how expensive those upgrades would be.

“The things in this bill that claimed to address emissions from these coal plants are uneconomical,” J.C. Kibbey with the NRDC told the Senate committee. “They are ineffective, and they involve technologies that are unproven and have never been deployed at scale. They’re also unheard of. No state in the country with a 100% carbon free power sector allows offsets or direct air capture or “net zero” to qualify as carbon free electricity because they are not. Far from leading the nation, this proposal would actually lower the bar for climate action that other states have set.”

In the meantime, the city-owned coal power plants would only have to reduce their carbon emissions by 50% in the year 2040, a retirement schedule which was not nearly aggressive enough for Pritzker or the environmentalists.

“Scientists around the world have said we are at a ‘code red for humanity’ and surely they would agree that we cannot wait to 2040 to cut the emissions of Prairie State Energy Campus – the nation’s seventh largest polluter – in half,” Pritzker’s office said.

“Simply put, this bill would allow coal plants to pollute in perpetuity,” Kibbey said. “It would allow the state to burn coal forever, and continue killing one person every five days forever. Continuing to burn coal forever is not consistent with a livable climate. It is not consistent with environmental justice, and it certainly is not nation leading on climate change.”

While top negotiators on both sides continue to express public optimism that a deal is within reach, tensions are growing stronger between the Pritzker administration and Senate President Don Harmon’s staff, and the stalemate has allowed labor unions to build momentum with moderate House Democrats, many of whom have cooled off on the idea.

Pritzker’s team remains wary of Harmon’s chief of staff, who lobbied for Prairie State Generating Company last year. At the same time, several statehouse Democrats have voiced concerns that the first-term governor is putting his own political ambitions ahead of the economic interests of their districts.

A number of Senate Democrats have also grown weary with the Pritzker administration’s assertion that climate change is such an urgent threat to the planet that the solution is to wait another 24 years to stop pollution. While they find it a worthy goal to pursue, they wish Pritzker was less strident in publicly crowing about changes that would cost them political pain in the near term and wouldn’t actually deliver tangible results for the climate for decades to come. Some have pointed out that other General Assemblies or future governors could easily come along and rewrite or alter the goals they hope to etch into law with this measure, and have called on Pritzker to soften his stance demanding hard closure dates that would cost thousands of jobs, could make Illinois more reliant on importing energy from surrounding states, and may never end up actually happening in reality.

“There are a lot of dates in this bill that reached far into the future, until 2035, 2045,” Senator Bill Cunningham said. “This bill is not going to be the final word from the General Assembly on energy policy until we reach those dates.”

If Pritzker can’t convince labor unions and environmentalists to see eye-to-eye and pass a deal, the fallout could cost thousands of good-paying union jobs at nuclear power plants. The package, in its latest forms, still includes $694 million in state taxpayer funds for Exelon Generation over the next five years. The state’s largest public utility company reached a deal with federal prosecutors to pay a $200 million fine to avoid corruption charges stemming from the last energy deal negotiated in Springfield. Exelon says the state subsidies would help them avoid closing nuclear power plants in Byron and Dresden, which employ hundreds of union workers and generate massive amounts of carbon-free power.

“The urgency of the nuclear component of this bill is real,” Pat Devaney, the Secretary and Treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO testified on Monday. “And without action over the next couple days, now, we will lose these two facilities and the thousands of good paying jobs they provide.”

Congress is also considering an infrastructure package that include nuclear subsidies, though Hastings said Exelon would not be allowed to “double dip” at the public trough.

“In the event that there’s a double benefit of the bargain from the federal government, and then the state governments benefit, we will make sure that they’re not getting both ends of that bargain,” he said.

An August 31st “solar cliff” also presents a real deadline for legislators. State law requires Illinois to send $300 million in refunds back to ratepayers if the state doesn’t invest that pool of money into solar projects.

“There’s about $300 million that was initially set for solar projects in the state of Illinois, to invest in solar projects,” Hastings said. “We want to make sure those investments still occur. So the goal is to pass the bill tomorrow, so that we can move forward with investing in our solar resources.”

Various estimates have projected residential consumers could see their electric bills rise by roughly $3 to $5 per month to offset the higher cost of labor and nuclear subsidies in the deal, though the final costs and rate structures have not yet been determined.

Hastings said his plan would require ComEd and Exelon to submit to state audits and investigations to guarantee that the company had not profited on any “undue benefit of the bargain.” If state investigators were to find the company had done so, Hastings said his plan would make sure that “whatever that benefit is, that money gets rebated back to the taxpayer.”

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