With a green-energy deal seemingly on the ropes, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker pledged Monday to veto a sprawling, Senate Democratic package that he said kowtows to polluters during a “code red for humanity” global climate crisis.
As lawmakers prepared to reconvene in special session Tuesday, proponents of a newly-drafted 980-page utility bill hinted at a possible Senate vote on one of the farthest-reaching utility packages to come before the statehouse.
It would authorize a massive ratepayer bailout for Exelon to keep its struggling nuclear plants afloat, usher in wide scale use of electric vehicles and possibly lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in ratepayer refunds from Commonwealth Edison over its bribery-tainted lobbying scandal.
But the debate is axle-deep in political inertia because two of the Democratic Party’s leading constituencies — environmentalists and labor unions — are feuding over key aspects of the bill, creating ruts within the party that controls all the power in Springfield.
As he did last spring, Pritzker said the poison pill in the deal floated Monday were provisions to protect a downstate coal-burning plant that provides power to several dozen Illinois communities.
The Senate Democratic plan would require the Prairie State Energy Campus to cut its carbon emissions by 50% by 2040 as a condition to remain in operation, perhaps indefinitely. Pritzker called for the plant’s closure by 2035 and later negotiated to move that back to 2045.
“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 spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.
“And a thousand-page energy bill affecting both ratepayers and utility interests that have been the subject of a deferred prosecution agreement should not be released on a Monday and voted on the next day,” she said, referring to the deal ComEd cut with federal prosecutors to avoid prosecution for its admitted bribery-tainted Springfield lobbying operation.
The governor’s spokeswoman said the measure pushed by Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, “was not agreed to by environmentalists nor negotiated with all stakeholders” and said Pritzker would veto the package if it reaches his desk.
But Harmon wasn’t sounding like someone ready to give in late Monday.
“The Senate president remains optimistic that we’ll find the winning balance of reliable, renewable and affordable energy policies for the people of Illinois,” spokesman John Patterson said.
Harmon and his Senate Democratic colleagues have been marching to their own legislative drum on the fight over energy policy, repeatedly clashing with the governor’s office. Earlier in the day Monday, they seemed poised to move forward on a plan despite opposition from Pritzker and environmentalists.
“I would urge all not to let perfect be the enemy of the good on this bill because there’s a lot of good here,” said state Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, one of Harmon’s top lieutenants involved in the energy bill.
If Pritzker’s opposition wasn’t enough, the Senate Democratic package, as drafted, faced a potential dead-end in the Democratic-controlled House, where Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, balked at putting the Harmon-backed plan up for a vote even if it were to pass the Senate.
“The speaker is still reviewing the language that was filed [Monday] morning, but he has always been clear that before an energy proposal is called in the House there must be a consensus among the Democratic caucus and stakeholders, as well as include strong, meaningful ethics provisions,” Welch spokeswoman Jaclyn Driscoll said.
During a Senate committee hearing Monday, environmentalists denounced the plan’s leniency toward Prairie State, which is located southeast of St. Louis and supplies electricity to Winnetka, Naperville, Batavia and other suburbs.
The Senate plan says if the facility can filter enough carbon from its emissions, it could operate indefinitely, but critics said technology doesn’t exist to scrub the plant’s emissions in the scale necessary and needs to be closed to combat global warming.
“This bill would allow coal plants to pollute in perpetuity. It would allow Prairie State to burn coal forever and continue killing one person every five days, forever,” said J.C. Kibbey, with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“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,” he told the Senate committee.
And with Pritzker’s backing, other like-minded environmental groups are doing their part to pressure legislators to reject the Senate’s latest proposal.
“The coming days will determine whether legislators are strong enough to side with their constituents, or polluting fossil fuel industries who have called the shots in Springfield for too long,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “Our clean energy future and the future of generations to come depends on the decisions legislators make over the next few hours. Our movement won’t stop pushing until the General Assembly has passed equitable, comprehensive climate legislation worthy of the people of Illinois.”
Several major unions, including the Chicago Federation of Labor, voiced support for the Senate plan, portraying it as the only salvation for union electrical jobs threatened by Exelon’s promised closure this fall of its Byron and Dresden nuclear plants if no state subsidies emerge. Exelon’s Braidwood nuclear plant could be on the chopping block later.
“The urgency of the nuclear component of this bill is real and without action, over the next couple days — now — we will lose these two facilities and the thousands of good-paying jobs they provide,” said Pat Devaney, secretary treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO. “In addition to the loss of jobs, we will see financial devastation to entire regions of our state and a major setback for Illinois on meeting its clean energy goals.”