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.
The Southern Illinoisan has a long-running competition with the Belleville News-Democrat over which Illinois newspaper has the strongest bias in favor of the coal industry. So I was pleasantly surprised last year when I saw the Southern Illinoisan doing good reporting on the fracking issue, even giving frequent voice to the opposition. That changed.
A recent article in the Southern is so ridiculous, so over the top misleading, it looks like they’ve given up on doing real journalism about fracking.
Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE) sent out a press release last week full of facts and figures on worker safety problems in the fracking industry. Illinois’ weak fracking law doesn’t address the problem. The Southern first responded with an article that gives more space to defensive responses from industry supporters than it does to citing facts and studies. That showed bias, but you won’t believe what they published next!
The article is no different than running anecdotal stories about two heavy smokers who lived past age 90 and failing to mention studies linking cigarettes to cancer. If it didn’t hurt those two it must be safe, right? It’s not journalism. It’s propaganda.
Maybe tomorrow the Southern will feature an article about two people who haven’t been in deadly traffic accidents, so clearly all roads must be perfectly safe! Don’t worry about those pesky rumors and studies on how many people die in auto accidents each year.
Fracking has begun in Illinois. Governor Pat Quinn’s Department of Natural Resources issued a permit for a test well at a site where oil fracking is planned. The well isn’t subject to Illinois fracking rules due to loopholes in the law passed last year.
By utilizing methods that require a lower volume of water, and exploiting other loopholes, oil frackers can avoid new regulation. As Illinois State University emeritus professor William Rau writes, that will deny the state tax revenue from those operations, along with other consequences.
Public notice requirements, baseline water testing, insurance provisions, modest environmental protections and setbacks, earthquake mitigation, bans on open pit storage of frack waste water, etc., are all gone. Illinois will become the wild and woolly west of fracking.
The public doesn’t yet know how much horizontal fracking will occur outside compliance with the law. Illinois residents are facing a major public safety crisis and state politicians don’t seem to notice.
Opposition continues as people learn more about the inadequacy of a law that was written behind closed doors and rushed through the legislature with very little public scrutiny. A recent day of action saw citizens in Chicago and southern Illinois bring accountability to those responsible for the dangerously weak fracking law.
“For sale” signs were placed at the campaign office of state representative Mike Bost, who co-sponsored the law while claiming it would “keep our air clean, protect our water supply and maintain our environment.” In fact, the law contains no provisions to limit toxic air emissions that harm the health of those living nearby.
Bost is running for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ 12th district. Like many legislators, he mistakenly believed the fracking law was a consensus issue. Now, he’s confronted with the reality of people in his district outraged at seeing the law-making and rule-making process up for sale to the oil and gas industry. Continue reading How Much Fracking Will Remain Unregulated in Illinois?
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.
A disturbing new video of poisoned water, leaking oil rigs, and lax enforcement at Illinois oil wells highlights why proposed fracking regulation won’t protect the state’s environment or people. The Greenpeace interview with a southern Illinois native and former oil worker shows a fracking test well in a neglected part of the state where weak enforcement at existing wells is already endangering the public.
Illinois’ new fracking law provides funding for the Office of Mines and Minerals to hire new staff. But, that would only be a solution if lack of staffing were the primary problem. Governor Pat Quinn has refused to clean house and restructure an agency notoriously cozy with industry.
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.”
That didn’t take long. An Illinois Republican party official made a racist and sexist attack against Erika Harold two weeks after she announced her Congressional primary campaign against a Republican incumbent. The ugly comments by the chair of the Montgomery County Republican Party have gotten plenty of coverage so I won’t repeat them here. Conservative talk show hosts are advised to wait a week before going back to arguing that racism is no longer a problem in America.
Her opponent in the Republican primary, freshman incumbent Rodney Davis, did the right thing by removing the official’s name from a list of supporters on his website and asking him to resign as party chair.
The episode reminded me about a piece of Davis campaign literature I wrote about last year as an example of “othering” or as I like to call it, fill-in-the-blank-prejudice. A Davis campaign representative handed it out during a 9-12 & Take Back America event in Montgomery County, which is now looking for a new Republican chair.
During campaign season, 9-12 groups were usually careful not to make overtly racist slurs, but the movement includes plenty of appeals to a vague sense of America as they know it being under attack by this new socialist black President and his scary allies. So, it’s no wonder that the Davis campaign would give the group literature claiming that he’s one of them. It says Davis will represent “Our America” where people put in an honest day’s work.
The card doesn’t need to tell a 9-12 group in an overwhelmingly white small town who those other people are from somewhere else where they don’t put in an honest days work and who aren’t part of “our america.” They can fill in the blanks. This the same crowd who claim that most of their state tax dollars are being taken from rural downstate and spent in Chicago because that’s where most of the welfare recipients live. Of course, that belief is absurd since much of rural Illinois is poor and most of the state’s millionaires and Fortune 500 companies are located in the Chicago area. Continue reading Racist, sexist attack against Congressional candidate a reminder of opponent’s subtle appeal to prejudice
Governor Pat Quinn is expected to sign legislation that will open Illinois to large scale fracking, but citizens continue to push back. Picketers asked Quinn to veto the bill outside a Democratic Governor’s Association gathering held at a Wrigley Field rooftop.
As a Cardinals fan, this sign about fracking and the Cubs is my favorite. “The Cubs bad for the last 100 years. Fracking bad for the next 100 years.”