Illinois may be more famous for imprisoned Governors, but as a coal state struggling with its energy future, some of our politicians have wacky things to say about fossil fuels. With the threatened start of fracking plus backlash to EPA proposing new rules on carbon emissions, you can expect more foolishness to come.
Since election season is upon us, it’s a good time to review the top five politicians whose uninformed and outrageous statements make them the biggest fossil fools in Illinois this year (so far).
5) Representative Rich Brauer
Few things are more cringe-inducing in politics than an elected official supremely confidant in their display of ignorance. State Representative Rich Brauer was one of several politicians putting ignorance on display during debate on a bill to end the state’s coal education program. The taxpayer funded propaganda campaign misleads school children about coal and clean energy. It includes incredulous claims that coal is clean plus a poster drawing contest that encourages children to create their own advertising slogans.
Brauer defended this government indoctrination of children by arguing that adults need educating too. “Half our energy in this country comes from coal,” Brauer claimed. He thinks his fellow legislators need to learn that Illinois coal is cheap and clean!
Brauer is embarrassingly wrong on every point. Coal hasn’t provided half the nation’s power in years. It’s under 40% and falling.
Coal isn’t cheap. The last two coal plants built in Illinois resulted in significant rate increases. Cities and rural co-op investors in Peabody’s Prairie State coal plant were forced to raise rates up to 30%. An Illinois Commerce Commission study of the failed Tenaska coal gasification and carbon sequestration plant proposed in Taylorville, Illinois showed that, even after massive subsidies, it would have produced energy at costs significantly higher than renewable alternatives. Coal keeps the rates up.
And sure, coal is clean. As long as you don’t count out of control pollution violations at Illinois mines, fatal mine accidents, increased rates of cardiovascular disease and asthma attacks, and water contamination from coal ash disposal ponds. As long as you ignore all of those things that make coal dangerous and deadly at every stage of production, then sure, coal is clean.
Rich Brauer is right that adults in the legislature need better education about coal…starting with him.
4) Congressman John Shimkus
John Shimkus is a lifetime misachievement award winner for saying foolish things about climate change, such as his claim that more CO2 is good for the planet because it’s plant food. But what has he said for us lately?
What recently caught my attention, besides his lack of concern that his constituents live in flood prone regions of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, was his portrayal of the culture in coal country. He spoke about low-income communities where coal is the only source of jobs. He mentioned his grandfather working at mines starting at only 10 years of age. My great-grandfathers worked at Illinois and Indiana coal mines so I understand the tradition.
There are some aspects of America’s culture we choose to leave behind. Slavery is one. Genocide of Native Americans is another. The history of forcing families in coal country to choose between starvation or sending children as young as 10 years old to work in a place where death is commonplace is one of those legacies best left in the past. Coal country has prouder traditions to celebrate, including organized labor’s resistance to coal companies exploiting desperate communities.
Coal country is better served by leaders who help create more opportunities, not by industry boosters like Shimkus who want coal to be our last and only option.
3) Representative Brandon Phelps
State Representative Brandon Phelps hates outside energy interests influencing politics in his district. Echoing the bellyaching of southern reactionary politicians upset about “outside agitators” in the 50′s, he accuses constituents in his southern Illinois district who are opposed to fracking of being “outsiders.”
Of course, he doesn’t mind outsiders so much when out of state energy companies are writing checks to his campaign fund. What I suspect he minds even less is the interesting way he spends their money.
Phelps collected tens of thousands in campaign contributions from the energy sector while the fracking law was being negotiated behind closed doors. Contributions in his latest report include $2,500 from Texas-based Dynegy, $5,000 from Missouri-based Foresight Energy, $1,500 from Mid American Energy Holdings Company, which is now Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway, and others. Exxon Mobil makes an annual donation as well. Clearly, Phelps takes no issue with outside energy interests, as long as they’re fossil fuel polluters donating to his campaign.
He hasn’t had an opponent in several election cycles but he manages to find ways to spend his campaign fund. His amended quarterly reports show thousands of dollars spent on car payments, out-of-district bar tabs, luxury hotel stays, and payments to staff even during non-election years.
His most recent quarterly report includes $2,386.88 in car payments. He spent $1,334.37 on multiple visits to Boone’s Saloon, a Springfield bar popular with the legislative session crowd. $628.00 went to unspecified tickets purchased from Fox Sports in St. Louis, presumably the venue that hosts various sporting and concert events.
His report for the previous quarter includes similar car payments. Plus, three payments to American Airlines for travel totaling $1,922. A more modest $187.75 went to Boone’s Saloon this time, but his totals at other Springfield hangouts include $1,809.19 at Sebastian’s Hideout, a combined $342 for “food” on three different trips to Two Brother’s Lounge, a divey downtown bar that doesn’t serve food, and $154.00 for a meeting at J.P. Kelly’s bar, which doesn’t serve food either. In Chicago he dropped $1,255.59 at Centro Restaurant. While attending the NRA Shot Show he spent nearly $5,000 to stay at the Venetian Palazzo luxury hotel in Las Vegas.
I could continue with previous reporting periods that pile up similar spending. Phelps’ district includes Alexander County where the per capita annual income is $14,222, the lowest in Illinois.
Phelps’ support for fracking has attracted a Green Party opponent who he’s trying to have removed from the ballot. I can understand why Phelps would like to avoid giving voters a choice. He might be forced to spend more of those dirty energy donations on actual campaign expenses. Continue reading Who Are the Top Five Fossil Fools in Illinois Politics?
Tony Mayville is a candidate for State Representative in southern Illinois and Chairman of the Washington County Democratic Party. He has also supervised the Mine Safety Division and served as acting director of Mines and Minerals at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Over several years, including time while Mayville was responsible for regulating Illinois coal mines, he collected thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies owned by billionaire coal mine operator Chris Cline. In November 2013 a fatal accident occurred at a coal mine owned by Chris Cline and regulated by Tony Mayville.
Mayville chairs the political fund of the Washington County Democratic Party Central Committee. Their campaign finance reports show the committee raising thousands of dollars from multiple companies owned by the Cline Group at least since 2008 through 2013.
Several contributions were from Cline subsidiary Hillsboro Energy. They gave Mayville’s Washington County Democratic fund $1,000 in 2008, $500 in 2010, and another $1,000 in 2011. During that time, the company was seeking a permit from the Department of Natural Resources for the Deer Run longwall mine. Mayville was already collecting coal industry campaign contributions when Governor Pat Quinn made him acting director of the Office of Mines and Minerals, where he would oversee the mine permitting process.
Similarly, Mayville’s Washington County committee took $500 from Macoupin Energy LLC, another Cline subsidiary seeking a new mine permit.
More recently, Cline-owned Foresight Energy donated $1,000 in 2012 to the party committee, and another $2,000 to Mayville’s state representative campaign fund in March of 2013. Foresight Energy’s donation to Mayville’s campaign attracted negative attention, so last week his campaign sent a letter to the state board of elections claiming it was accepted by accident. He transferred the contribution to the Washington county party committee he chairs. The distinction may be legally significant, but regardless of which of his committees he used, Mayville accepted campaign contributions from coal mine owners while overseeing mine safety at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
This obvious conflict of interest highlights the notoriously cozy relationship between the Illinois Office of Mines and Minerals and industries they’re charged with regulating. Citizens have had to fight foolish coal mines permits granted by an agency with employees collecting political donations from mine owners. The fatal accident last November at a mine owned by Chris Cline is a tragic reminder that regulation of the coal industry is literally a life and death issue. Continue reading Illinois Mine Safety Head Took Thousands in Campaign Contributions from Coal Baron Chris Cline
Remember the stories about rivers in Illinois earlier this year? They were about a long drought so bad it was slowing barge traffic on the Mississippi River down to a halt.
And here we are in spring with our rivers and half the state flooded. In fact, heavy flooding forced the closure of about a dozen locks on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Sections of both rivers have been closed to barge traffic.
I just took the train from Chicago to Springfield and I saw all kinds of water in places where it isn’t supposed to be. It’s bad.
(Photo Credit: Chris Young)
In the Quad Cities, WQAD TV news has a story about drought and flooding hitting a Christmas tree farm along the Rock River. Drought had killed 900 trees when they first covered the farm in July. Now, he has to visit his trees in a boat. He says he has never seen it go from one extreme to another this badly before.
As usual, almost no one in the press is pointing it out, but this is exactly what those nagging scientists told us would happen. They warned the Midwest would have more erratic, extreme and unpredictable weather, including more droughts, and more severe storms leading to flooding. A federal report on the impacts of climate change in the Midwest summarized:
The likely increase in precipitation in winter and spring, more heavy downpours, and greater evaporation in summer would lead to more periods of both floods and water deficits.
The 2009 report even warned that low river levels would cause problems for river traffic. It’s like they could see into the future. That report was either written by clairvoyant fortune tellers, or a group of scientists who really knew what the hell they were talking about.
So yes, we get both more flooding and more droughts thanks to climate change. Barge traffic is interrupted in both winter and spring.
At this point it’s more descriptive to go ahead and call it a Climate Clusterfuck. That’s what we’re dealing with from here on out.
More attention is given to the threat of rising sea levels on the coast, but the Mississippi River Valley is already being hit hard in ways that harm our regional economy, food supply, and safety. No one can say exactly what the weather would have looked like this year if climate change wasn’t happening, but we do know that if we really want more seasons like this and worse, then we should keep burning fossil fuels. Continue reading Illinois drought and flooding isn’t climate change. It’s a climate clusterfuck.
I love irony, but this example is costly. Coal power plants are the top source of man-made pollutants that contribute to climate change. Now, the impacts of climate change will make it more difficult to ship coal.
The long drought across the Midwest is causing an extended period of exceptionally low levels along the Mississippi River. Barge operators are worried that river traffic will continue to slow or come to a stop. Much of the barge traffic along the Mississippi and its tributaries is transporting coal.
Any shipment delays or increased costs will make it more difficult for coal to compete with the low price of natural gas, and of course, the cost of delivering more wind to existing wind farms is zero.
A superstitious person could interpret this as the Mississippi protecting itself. Burning more coal will result in even worse droughts in the future. The river is taking smarter action than the fossil fuel politicians.
This is one more example of how the coal industry acts as an economic cannibal. The act of mining and burning coal destroys other forms of economic development; in this case, barge traffic. It’s a larger-scale version of strip-mining land until it can’t be used for any other purpose.
What about agriculture?
The drought is doing even more damage to agriculture, which is being hit twice. First, during the growing season, and now again since grain is shipped by barge. That’s why it’s so disappointing to see some ag groups like the Farm Bureau frequently attack any attempt to deal with climate change. Spreading nutty EPA conspiracy theories in farm publications doesn’t help. Continue reading Impacts of burning coal make it harder to burn more coal: Drought hits barge traffic
I always felt Candy Crowley focused on the frivolous, like most of CNN, so she exceeded my expectations moderating the Presidential debate. She mostly did an acceptable job, but her decision to focus the energy discussion on gas prices rather than climate change was a massive failure.
Crowley chose the question on gas prices and asked two follow-up questions to keep the focus there. It’s a way of framing the energy debate that ignores a far more important issue. If a person’s home or workplace is destroyed by a catastrophic flood, hurricane, or wildfire, or if their crop is destroyed by drought, then suddenly gas prices aren’t the most important problem. I can only guess about whether Crowley’s misguided focus is due to a lack of understanding of the enormity of the problem or because of CNN’s reliance on massive advertising revenue from the fossil fuel industry. The press is still part of the problem.
It’s disappointing that Obama didn’t raise climate change himself, but keeping the focus on gas prices is a way to put politicians who want to deal with climate change on the defensive. Obama did the right thing by investing heavily in clean energy and efficiency. But, the smaller stimulus investments in clean coal have largely been a failure and pandering to coal is gaining Obama nothing politically. The coal industry will continue spending millions to fight him, no matter how much he increases coal mining production or throws subsidies at them. Continue reading Debate Moderator Fail: Does anyone worry about gas prices when their home is destroyed by disaster?
David Roberts has an interesting article at Grist in response to a reader asking how energy journalism can be better. It got me thinking about my experiences giving interviews and pitching stories on energy topics in Illinois.
He writes that journalists and politicians are mostly sleepwalking into the great crisis of our time. With rare exception, we don’t have energy-specific journalists.
There are finance and business journalists who cover energy as a commodity business, tracking global supply and demand flows, prices, futures trading, all that sort of stuff. There are business and tech journalists who focus on cleantech. There are environmental journalists, who tend to cover energy (when they do it) through the lens of enviros vs. polluters. And there are political journalists who cover energy as a campaign and/or policy issue, sometimes as a specialty, more often as part of a portfolio.
He goes on to write that journalists generally view energy stories from the angle of of their beat, and that isn’t well suited to an issue like climate change that intersects so many national and international problems. How do journalists used to looking through one lens paint the bigger picture?
That is not necessarily something that comes easily to journalists, especially old-school reporters. Pushing climate change or energy poverty into a conversation where it hasn’t typically appeared and isn’t typically taken seriously can feel like advocacy or moralizing. It pushes against some quiet but insistent social and professional pressures. Right now, frankly, think tanks, NGOs, and bloggers are doing a better job of it.
Roberts’ observations make a lot of sense when I think about my interactions with the regional press.
Like most papers, the State Journal-Register doesn’t have a writer dedicated to energy. Several years ago I never would have expected to write that the best reporter on energy at the SJR is the business editor. Tim Landis covers developments in the regional coal industry without the critical view I would take. But, when there’s a controversial story, he does a good job of getting different perspectives and explaining complex issues. I’m consistently impressed by his work.
On the political side, there has essentially been a blackout on climate change at the SJR. In last year’s Springfield city election, they failed to ask candidates about clean energy or climate change even though the city council oversees our public utility. The decision to build a coal plant and purchase wind power was one of the hottest local government issues in the past decade but the SJR felt the top issue to cover at the utility was patronage hiring.
Their election coverage this year is no different. Every candidate is asked about the conservative wedge issues of guns and gays, but nothing on climate change. Despite the fact that state and national legislators will spend far more time on energy issues than gun control or gay marriage; despite the fact that climate change is the subject of intense citizen interest; and despite the fact that every paper in the region believes the impacts of climate change are a front page story when droughts hit farmers and rivers flood. In the 13th Congressional district race, political reporters across the district have helped Rodney Davis continue ducking the most pressing issue of our time. It’s difficult for me to understand why. Continue reading Does downstate Illinois need better energy journalism?
Illinois is attempting to become ground zero for clean coal projects. That effort cost state taxpayers millions of dollars for failed coal plants that will never be built. I recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) to find out how much their Office of Coal Development (OCD) gave to several proposed coal plants that were abandoned.
The OCD boasts of spending more to support the coal industry than any other state in the union. In 2011 their three primary coal programs spent $408.5 million in state taxpayer funds. Much of that spending is for coal mines and aging plants. For this post, I’ll focus on their support of four failed projects based on the results of my FOIA request and the DCEO grant tracker.
Tenaska’s Taylorville Energy Center
I haven’t seen an official announcement that Tenaska is abandoning the Taylorville Energy Center, but it’s definitely down for the count. After repeatedly failing over several years to pass a special rate-hike bill through the legislature, they scaled back their plans from a coal gasification and sequestration project to a natural gas plant. That appeared to cost them support from coal-friendly legislators without gaining the additional votes they needed. In July, their construction permit was withdrawn after US EPA took issue with its failure to require carbon sequestration. Without a permit and little chance of getting supportive legislation, this project hasn’t got a pulse.
The Coal Demonstration Program gave Tenaska $18 million in 2010. That came after Tenaska spent $2.5 million in grants given in ’06-’07. State taxpayers spent $20.5 million in direct grants for the Taylorville Energy Center. That comes out to a little over $1,800 for every resident of Taylorville.
As if that weren’t enough, Tenaska expected to qualify for $30 million to $60 million per year in clean coal tax credits included in the federal stimulus bill.
The company also received preliminary qualification for a $2.579 billion federal Department of Energy loan guarantee. Their application was strongly supported by area Congressman John Shimkus. He even sent a member of his staff (who’s currently running for Congress) to speak at a public hearing in favor of the loan guarantee. Later, Shimkus was outspoken in hearings criticizing the loan guarantee Solyndra received from the same Department of Energy program. In Shimkus’ view, a loan guarantee for a failed solar project is worth holding hearings over, but a loan guarantee five times bigger for a failed coal project in his own district is never mentioned.
Power Holdings of Illinois
Aurora-based Power Holdings sought to build a plant in rural southern Illinois that would convert coal to synthetic natural gas. It’s difficult to tell how serious they were since the company never had the finances or expertise to complete it on their own. They did manage to get the coal-friendly Illinois legislature to pass a bill forcing several utilities into 10-year contracts to buy the plant’s output.
Power Holdings received three OCD grants for studies and early engineering work in 2006 and 2010 totaling $4.05 million. Additionally, an economic empowerment zone was extended to provide the owners a variety of state and local tax breaks, despite objections from residents neighboring the proposed site.
Power Holdings finally declared defeat when they were unable to find enough investors who thought it was a good idea to create a very expensive, dirty way to produce synthetic natural gas from coal at a time when regular natural gas is plentiful and cheap. The market wouldn’t support this bad idea, even with mandatory contracts and millions in subsidies.
On Chicago’s south side, another coal-to-gas plant was proposed in an area already suffering from environmental public health threats. Governor Pat Quinn vetoed a bill that would have guaranteed profits for Leucadia and potentially cost consumers billions of dollars in rate hikes. That forced the company to give up, acknowledging that it can’t continue without special manipulations of the market.
Leucadia was awarded $250,000 in 2009 for a feasibility study. The next year they were granted $10 million more for additional studies and cost estimates. Millions of dollars in taxpayers funds were awarded in the early stages of the project when the company had not even applied for an EPA permit, had no legislative approval they needed to proceed, and faced significant community opposition.
FutureGen Episode 1: The Phantom Hope
The George W. Bush administration started FutureGen as a research project to demonstrate the viability of clean coal and carbon sequestration. Mattoon, Illinois won a competition to host the plant, but the federal Department of Energy soon abandoned the effort due to escalating costs. That failure wasn’t taken as signal about the viability of clean coal, so a new “FutureGen 2.0″ is now proposed in Meredosia, near Jacksonville, Illinois.
The first incarnation of FutureGen proposed in Mattoon was given three Coal Competitiveness Program grants totaling $1.32 million. Coles County invested millions and extended an enterprise zone to exempt FutureGen from paying many local taxes. The community was left devastated and angry when FutureGen was scuttled.
Demonstrating the persistence of Wile E. Coyote, FutureGen 2.0 was already granted $850,000
earlier this year. That totals $2.17 million in Illinois DCEO funds awarded directly to FutureGen. That number is tiny compared to the billions of dollars in federal support, but that’s a topic for another blog.
Shortly before Morgan County was selected for FutureGen 2.0, DCEO gave the Christian County Development Corporation $7,500 to compete for the project. They gave $10,000 to the city of Vandalia to compete against Christian county. Plus $10,000 more to Tuscola. Jacksonville got $18,000 to push for Morgan County. In total, DCEO awarded $45,500 to four communities so they could fight each other for the same project.
The grants provided an inducement for each community to offer the FutureGen Alliance their own package of incentives on top of federal and state dollars. Dividing up the money between competitors, instead of creating a unified state plan, seems like an uncoordinated waste. But, I can’t imagine a better way to boost local support, and encourage communities to overlook potential negative impacts of the project, than egging on a competition between small towns desperate for any jobs they can get. Continue reading Failed clean coal projects cost Illinois taxpayers millions
You may not be familiar with the Illinois Pollution Control Board, but they have a lot of power to decide what goes into your lungs. They’ll hold a hearing August 1st to consider Ameren’s request to renege on a deal the company made to reduce pollution from their aging fleet of Illinois coal plants.
Back in 2006 Ameren Illinois, along with other utilities, agreed to a compromise on new mercury pollution standards for coal power plants. They would be allowed to follow a less stringent standard on lowering Mercury pollution, and in exchange for that leniency, they agreed to lower levels of other poisonous air pollutants (SO2 and NOx). Ameren helped to negotiate the agreement and celebrated it as a victory for clean air.
Six years later, Ameren has decided that they don’t like the deal anymore. They want to continue releasing the higher levels of Mercury pollution but without making the SO2 reductions on the timetable they agreed to. In other words, they want to release more of a pollutant that causes birth defects and learning disabilities in children, AND they also want to release more of a pollutant that causes asthma attacks and aggravates heart disease. It must be because they love their customers so much!
An objection filed by several environmental groups put it this way: “Ameren now wants to have its cake and eat it, too; it reaped the benefit of less stringent mercury standards for years but wants that benefit without meeting the prescribed SO2 limits.”
Ameren opted into the agreement that required reductions of SO2 in 2015 and 2017. Now, they’re proposing a five-year delay to 2020 and 2021. Those far-off dates are additionally significant because there’s no certainty that all of Ameren’s aging Illinois coal fleet will even remain in operation that long.
All of the reasons why Ameren seeks an extension for reducing SO2 (low energy prices, new federal regulation, cost of compliance, competition from natural gas) are also reasons why they may choose to retire additional plants within the next five to ten years. It’s fair to ask Ameren whether they will continue seeking extensions in an effort to run out the clock and avoid making new investments in their outdated plants before shutting them down.
If Ameren does choose to install pollution controls, there’s a good chance Illinois taxpayers will pick up part of the tab. The Coal Development Fund of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity brags of having the largest coal subsidy program of any state in the nation. Ameren has a long history of asking Illinois taxpayers to help pay for the cost of doing business, while Ameren keeps the profit for themselves. For example, Ameren received $850,000 in 2002 to reduce SO2 at their Coffeen plant. Continue reading Ameren Seeks an Extra Five Years of Poisoning Your Lungs
Tenaska company is making yet another push during the Illinois legislature’s current veto session for their so-called clean coal plant proposed in Taylorville, Illinois. They need the legislature to give the plant special help because it’s not economically viable in a competitive energy market.
Last year, Tenaska threatened that they would abandon the project if the General Assembly didn’t quickly approve their bill. But, like a Kiss farewell tour, they keep coming back no matter how many times we think it’s over.
The biggest special favor Tenaska demands is mandatory 30-year contracts at a rate which guarantees their profits. Nearly all Illinois utilities will be forced to participate and rate increases will be passed on to their customers. It’s socialism for the company, which gets guaranteed profits, while us taxpayers assume all the financial risk.
The legislature is being pressured to pass this bill because it will create temporary jobs for a few years while the plant is built. After those jobs are long gone, the state will be forced to carry the burden of overpriced, dirty power for the nest 30 years.
It’s important to remember that an Illinois Commerce Commission study determined that the proposed Taylorville plant would produce some of the most expensive energy on the market, costing even more than current wind power prices. Will overpriced power from this plant still make sense 10, 25, or 30 years from now after wind and solar come down even further in cost?
It’s amazing how far a bad idea can go when it’s being pushed by every other lobbyist in town. Burdening the next generation with a 30-year mistake would rank as one of the legislature’s most short sighted failures.
Where will CO2 from the proposed Taylorville coal plant really go?
The plant is being called a clean coal facility. So, how much global-warming-causing CO2 will it add to the atmosphere? It depends on who you ask and what day you’re asking. Continue reading Illinois legislature still considering 30-year dirty mistake in Taylorville