The three Democrats running in Illinois’ 13th Congressional district primary recently answered my questions about climate change and energy issues. It’s one of the hottest Congressional races in the nation since freshman incumbent Republican Rodney Davis narrowly won with merely 46.5% of the vote in 2012.
The central Illinois district is a complicated place to talk energy. Coal mining is no longer a major employer, but the industry still wields social and political influence beyond its economic impact. It contains the resting places of the two most significant coal mine union organizers in American history, Mother Jones and John L. Lewis. It’s also a farming district with agribusiness giant ADM based (for now) in Decatur. The metro-east St. Louis region is a center for refineries.
The 13th district also includes over a dozen colleges with young and educated voters increasingly concerned about climate change as the urgent crisis of our time. Environmentalists are organizing to become a bigger political player, particularly in response to the threat of increased coal mining and fracking.
All three Democratic candidates agree on the need to address climate change, promote clean energy, and protect the public from the negative impacts on fracking. Their responses reveal where they differ on details.
The Gollin and Callis campaigns asked for questions in writing. What follows are their responses in full.
Q: Rodney Davis has questioned the scientific consensus that man-made pollutants are contributing to the climate crisis. How would you differentiate yourself from Davis on the issue of climate change?
A: The scientific evidence for climate change is strong and alarming. It demands our immediate and continuing attention: we must reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Climate change poses an existential threat to our civilization, and it is irresponsible of Mr. Davis to pretend that this is not the case.
Q: Do you have a preference for how Congress should tackle the climate crisis, such as cap-and-trade, a carbon tax, more stimulus spending on clean energy and conservation, or another approach?
A: The problem needs to be attacked simultaneously from many different directions. I support a carbon tax, as well as a crash program to further develop solar, wind, and fusion energy sources. I also support addressing the problem of radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel from conventional fission reactors using “accelerator driven subcritical fission transmutation,” which shortens the cool-down time of the spent reactor fuel by a factor of one hundred, while releasing substantial amounts of usable energy.
Q:Do you support ending federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, including President Obama’s call to eliminate oil subsidies?
A: I support ending subsidies.
Q: Several studies have brought the climate change benefits of natural gas into question due to methane leaks. Do you see natural gas a solution to climate change and how would you address the environmental threats of fracking proposed in Illinois?
A: I am glad that we are using more natural gas and less coal to generate electricity–this reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But the problem of methane leakage is worrisome, and in need of constant oversight and tough regulation. I do understand the economic benefits of producing energy at home.
This is a perfect example of why we need more scientists in Congress. I don’t think we know enough about fracking, and I think that’s partly on purpose. I will push for legislation to require all fracking operations to disclose in advance the chemicals and other substances pumped into the ground, and to require continuous testing of groundwater, and publication of the test results.
I will also call on the National Academies of Science and Engineering to make a comprehensive study of the state of the science on the seismic and environmental risks of fracking. The study would yield a definitive report on the reliability of the geology and other analyses used to determine the risks of fracking, including how realistically we can assess the risks of groundwater contamination, induced seismicity, methane leakage from well heads, and–perhaps most importantly–how well fracking operations can be regulated in the face of a Republican Party which will try to cripple oversight by withdrawing funding for regulatory agencies.
If the conclusion is that the safety of fracking operations cannot be firmly established, or maintained in a hostile political environment, then I would immediately cosponsor legislation to ban fracking. And even if the NAS concludes that it can be done safely, I would cosponsor legislation requiring full disclosure of the contents of fracking fluids, and the results of pre- and post-fracking water assays. I would also sponsor legislation requiring the termination of fracking operations should regulatory oversight become inadequate because of funding cuts. I would sponsor legislation requiring a fracking operator to pay the costs of enforcing regulation, and the costs of mitigating any environmental problems attributable to fracking.
If careful, honest scientific analysis shows that we cannot prove that fracking is safe, then we should ban it. Let’s get the science figured out.
Q: Rodney Davis has questioned the scientific consensus that man-made pollutants are contributing to the climate crisis. How would you differentiate yourself from Davis on the issue of climate change?
A: I believe in the vast scientific evidence that man-made pollution is contributing to climate change. This winter has shown us the volatility of our current weather, and by looking at 30 year trends there is no denying the rapidly changing environment. I will work to preserve our natural resources and protect the air we breathe and the water we drink. We must leave our world in a better place for future generations, and that starts with reducing pollution. Continue reading Illinois Democratic Congressional Candidates Callis, Gollin, Green Talk Climate Change, Fracking
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.
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.
An Illinois ban on fracking is inevitable. The question is whether it will happen before or after a major fracking disaster.
The public comment period on Illinois’ draft regulations ended January 3 with groups in potentially impacted areas repeating their call for a ban on fracking. A group of southern Illinois residents representing several grassroots groups drove to Illinois Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Springfield to join with Frack Free Illinois in delivering comments on the regulation and a petition asking Governor Quinn to oversee a rewrite.
Tabitha Tripp, of Anna-Jonesboro, said in a statement, “these inadequate rules will leave nothing but legacies of disasters to those who voted on this irresponsible law and abandon Illinois tax payers who will indeed foot the bill for public health issues like cancer and leukemia.”
The regulation will likely be improved before being presented to the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for final approval. Even groups who supported the law are objecting to the Department of Natural Resources’ flaccid follow up. A few politicians will claim a victory for the environment after DNR makes marginal changes. But, the real weakness in the rules follows from the inadequacy of the law itself.
The law does not address the consequences of a tornado hitting a fracking site. It does not resolve the release of chemicals in a major flood, despite the fact that fracking will likely happen in floodplains of a region bordered by two of the highest volume rivers in America. The law provides for monitoring, but not preventing, fracking induced earthquakes despite the fact that it’s expected along major fault lines. If a large groundwater source, such as the Mahomet aquifer, is depleted or contaminated it could impact the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people.
A long list of other omissions in the law may be less dramatic but will be just as dangerous. For example, there’s no provision for monitoring air emissions at fracking sites, which a University of Colorado study linked to chronic health problems for those living nearby. DNR is allowed to waive fines that are already too low, and issue new permits to repeat offenders.
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.
New Coal Plants
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.
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.
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.”
The argument downplaying EPA action bothered me. First, because I think it was somewhat disingenuous. You can’t honestly go from bragging one week about how many proposed coal plants activists have stopped, often by using EPA regulation as a tool, and the next week pretending the movement doesn’t exist. It’s the kind of defensive, weak-kneed messaging that gives tree-huggers and liberals a bad reputation. The low price of natural gas may be the bigger factor in determining the future of coal, but compliance with regulation is an important part of the cost/benefit analysis companies do when making decisions about building or retiring coal plants.
That rhetorical retreat was troubling because EPA may be our last best hope of dealing with carbon pollution during the next 2-4 years. The climate change movement will be forced to rediscover their conviction to cheer EPA action as a positive.
It’s not hard to see why. The House is still controlled by a Republican majority in the pockets of oil and coal. Even though most of them campaigned on being bipartisan, they made similar promises in 2008. We saw how that turned out.
The Senate has a small Democratic majority, but the Democratic caucus still includes fossil fuel Senators like Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin. Plus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems uninterested in exposing oil and coal Democrats to controversial votes. He refused to bring cap-and-trade to the floor two years ago because it didn’t have 60 votes to pass, but then allowed three failed votes on stripping EPA authority to limit carbon emissions.
So, a big legislative solution like cap-and-trade is about as realistic as “clean coal.” I’ve seen suggestions about a carbon tax. As much as Congressional Republicans hate the idea of any tax increase, I can only imagine the category 5 hissy fit they would throw over a tax increase to deal with a problem they won’t even admit exists. I’d be happy to see someone try, but I won’t hold my breath.
What I’ll hold out small hope for in Congress is another jobs bill focused on energy efficiency, improving the grid, and promoting renewables. That was the best part of the stimulus bill, and we need another big round of green jobs spending in term II. Preferably, they should target spending in coal regions to offset job losses.
That leaves us with the authority a previous, more functional Congress already granted EPA to limit air pollutants. Obama moved forward with expanded EPA protections after Congress failed to act during his first two years in office. Some regulations have been stalled, like CSAPR. That needs to be completed along with better rules on mountaintop removal, coal ash, and air emissions like carbon.
How did I miss this whopper?! Republican Congressional candidate Rodney Davis claimed during a radio interview that climate change stopped sixteen years ago.
Clearly, you can tell that’s true because over the last several years we definitely haven’t had an unusual degree of extreme flooding along the Mississippi, no extreme droughts, and no Frankenstorms. Oh yeah, wait, those things are happening more often and it’s exactly what scientists told us to expect as a result of climate change.
You can listen to his comment after the 42:00-minute mark during a Focus interview on WILL public radio. A caller asked Davis how he plans to deal with climate change (no, it wasn’t me this time). Davis answered by claiming that, according to recent reports, “global warming stopped about sixteen years ago.”
Then he launched into his usual repetition of the Exxon/Koch Brothers talking point that there’s still a debate about whether man-made pollution is causing the crisis. It’s the argument climate change deniers have retreated to now that it’s impossible to ignore the change that’s already happening. As always, he dodged saying where he stands on whether man-made pollutants are the problem. He has gone through the entire campaign refusing to tell which side of that debate he’s on.
The caller interrupted Davis to tell him “that’s absolutely wrong” about climate change stopping, and challenged him to talk to a Nobel Prize winner at the University of Illinois about the scientific reality. That guy deserves a gold star. He may have been referring to a Professor of Atmospheric Science, Don Wuebbles, an outspoken, internationally recognized expert on climate issues who’s right here in central Illinois.
I googled the wacky claim about global warming stopping sixteen years ago and discovered it has been making the rounds on right-wing blogs and talk radio shows like Glenn Beck’s. It started with discredited writer Davis Rose publishing an article in a conservative British tabloid, which claimed there’s a report showing global temperatures stopped rising in 1996. The original report came from the British Met office.
Proposed changes to the county wind farm ordinance have become an issue in the election for Sangamon county board seats. In August, I wrote about the county board threatening to turn away green jobs and clean energy by adopting the most extreme restrictions in Illinois.
County board members punted the issue again by extending the ban on wind farms for another six months. Ordinance changes, which may halt development of a wind farm proposed in western Sangamon County, will be considered again after the election.
The delays, hesitation, and threatened destruction of a project that would create badly needed green jobs has been raised by several candidates challenging county board incumbents. Mike Ziri was the first to contact me after my blog post. Ziri is a Springfield Democrat running in district 11. Both Ziri and Mike Crews spoke in favor of wind farm jobs at the Liberty Brew & View candidate night last month. Crews referenced his opponent’s vote for the wind farm moratorium in a campaign mailing.
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 finally happened! During an interview with the State Journal-Register editorial board, Rodney Davis was asked if he accepts the scientific consensus behind climate change.
The question came near the end of their interview with the three candidates in the 13th District Congressional race (at 53:00 in the video online). It was finally discussed after independent candidate John Hartman scolded the SJR editorial board for not asking about an issue as important as climate change. When asked if it’s man-made, Hartman spoke about the broad scientific consensus that man-made pollution is driving the climate crisis.
David Gill reinforced the position on his campaign website, saying, “It’s not a question of belief, it’s a question of what is. The science is extremely clear on this. It’s very, very real and it’s a grave threat. Irreversible damage is already taking place now. The failure of the Exxon-Mobil funded politicians in Washington D.C. to address it appropriately is perhaps the biggest mistake that we’re making.”
Gill didn’t mention that his Republican opponent, Rodney Davis, already took the maximum allowable campaign contributions from Exxon and the Koch brothers PAC. Both Exxon and the Koch brothers funded deceptive propaganda campaigns to spread doubt about the science of climate change. Does Davis represent the views of his corporate sponsors who try to undermine science?
Davis claimed that, “I think we all agree that climate change is reality. There’s a debate between how much of it is man-made and how much of it is due to natural causes.” He didn’t say where he stands in that debate.
Once again, Davis dodged saying plainly what he believes about climate change science. Furthermore, his claim about the debate is misleading. There’s broad scientific consensus that man-made pollutants are driving greenhouse gasses far beyond normal levels, causing the planetary emergency we face now.
After it became impossible to deny that climate change was already happening, the deniers switched to the “natural causes” argument in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. Davis is repeating the misleading talking points used by the fossil fuel industry and their puppets like Glenn Beck, James Inhofe, and John Shimkus. He passed on the opportunity to distinguish himself from the anti-science conspiracy theorists who support his campaign.
Davis even brought out the old straw-man argument I often hear from coal industry spokesmen, that we can’t power the country on wind and solar alone. Back on planet reality, no one is seriously proposing we try doing that in the near future. What people do propose is that we create jobs by quickly building a lot of new clean energy. Unfortunately, Davis made it clear in his interview that he opposes meaningful policies to expand wind and solar.
When pressed about what tax loopholes he would close, Davis said “I would like to take away the energy tax credit that gave us the Solyndras of the world.”
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?