Springfield Update: Steps Toward A Clean Energy Future; Confronting the Threat of Fracking

Now that the Illinois General Assembly has adjourned its Spring 2013 session, we’ve heard a lot about what didn’t happen on the topics in the headlines – pensions, marriage equality, and other controversies dominating coverage.

Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see that there was a lot of action on energy and environmental issues, including very promising steps toward a clean energy future, and the very difficult challenges that the specter of massive new oil and gas drilling pose to all of us.

Sierra Club members worked hard this Spring to build support for these measures. Our volunteers worked to educate legislators in their communities, built bridges with new allies to help pass them, and visited the Capitol on multiple occasions to meet with Representatives and Senators and supplement the work of Sierra Club staff.

Before I get to the major issue of “fracking” for natural gas in a moment, let’s first take a look at the major steps forward we took in Springfield this year.

A Few Steps Toward a Clean Energy Future

Since Illinois set clean energy goals in 2007 – a requirement that we get 25% of our power form renewable energy by 2025 – Illinois has been reaping the benefits. We’ve eliminated the same amount of air pollution as the exhaust from 1 million cars. Electric bills are lower – $177 million lower in 2011 – because we’re diversifying our power mix. And, according to Illinois State University, over 19,000 new jobs have been created in the technologies of the future, even during a very difficult recession.

Illinois benefits the most when we meet our clean energy goals with renewable energy generated right here in the Prairie State. So far, that’s mostly been the case, however, major changes in power markets mean that may no longer be true without important updates to our clean energy goals. This year, State Senator Michael Frerichs (D-Giffords) and House Deputy Majority Leader Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) introduced proposals to make the needed changes. Ultimately, these bills did not move due to utility opposition.

While the unfinished business of updating our Renewable Portfolio Standard remains on Springfield’s to-do list, Illinois did take three important steps forward this Spring:

Clean Power For Communities – House Bill 2623 Hundreds of communities across Illinois are lowering their electric bills through municipal electric aggregation. A growing number of these communities are also leveraging their buying power to not only save money, but also to support cleaner sources of energy that offer cleaner air and the potential to create jobs in the technologies of the future.

To date, communities representing approximately 2 million Illinois residents have voted to use their power supply contracts to support clean energy. Community decisionmaking about power supply choices would be greatly informed by basic information about the sources of power that potential suppliers would use.

Many power supply agreements touted as “100% renewable” are conventional power sources coupled with the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits to support an equivalent amount of clean power.

House Bill 2623 will empower communities to see exactly what its options are in terms of power supply. Based on this information from potential suppliers, communities will have more choices about how to support clean energy, such as sourcing their clean power purchase locally, to create jobs in their community. Communities could also use this information to reduce or eliminate dirty fuels from their power mix, as the City of Chicago did when it eliminated coal from its electric supply.

Planning For Lake Michigan Wind Energy – House Bill 2753 The strong, sustained winds over Lake Michigan offer tremendous promise as a future clean energy resource for Illinois. House Bill 2753 directs the Illinois Department of Natural resources to oversee the next steps in planning for the future potential of offshore wind energy, including conducting research on wildlife migration patterns, and developing maps of the areas of greatest potential for wind energy that avoid impacts to our precious Lake Michigan.

The Renewable Energy Resources Fund – Potential Clean Energy Jumpstart Engine The Renewable Energy Resources Fund (RERF) is funded by mandatory payments from alternative retail electric suppliers. All of us who get our power from a competitive supplier (now 80% of Illinoisans) pay into the RERF, but not a single dollar has ever been spent on clean energy projects. Since the RERF was created, every dollar has been swept or “borrowed” for unrelated purposes.

Hopefully, that is all about to change, as the adopted state budget appropriates an historic $51 million that would allow the Illinois Power Agency (IPA) to invest these dollars for their intended purpose. These funds offer tremendous potential to help meet our clean energy goals, especially for solar power. In the months ahead, the IPA will be working on the programs to connect these dollars to clean energy projects, which will mean cleaner air and more workers installing solar and other renewables in communities across the state.

Protecting Illinois From Fracking

Fracking poses grave dangers to our communities, land, air, and water; and contributes to the continued destabilization of our climate. States like Illinois are largely on their own in facing these threats since Congress, in enacting one of the worst recommendations of the Bush-Cheney secret energy task force, exempted fracking from our most basic national environmental laws.

Illinois is horribly unprepared for fracking and its threats. Our Oil and Gas Act dates from 1941, and obviously doesn’t even consider the most troubling aspects of fracking. Adding to our vulnerability is the lack of any oversight over water withdrawals from ground or surface water, and the lack of a comprehensive environmental impact law that many states have.

Illinois is not prepared, but the industry is already here. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been leased for fracking, and evidence suggests that in fact it is already occurring, putting our citizens and environment at grave risk. The safest and smartest way to protect ourselves would be to immediately enact a moratorium to allow for thorough study of the risks of tracking and to learn from the experiences in other states and major health studies currently underway. Sierra Club has been working for a moratorium on fracking in Illinois for over a year, and this Spring supported HB3086 and SB1418 to call a two-year timeout. Unfortunately, these bills did not pass, although nearly half of the Senate supported a motion by Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) to bring a moratorium to the Senate floor for a vote. This was the strongest showing of support yet for a moratorium, and a base of support to build on going forward.

The General Assembly did pass, and Governor Quinn has now signed, Senate Bill 1715 which establishes substantial new controls on fracking. These new regulatory measures are essential to provide a measure of protection for the environment and public health. However, new regulations will not make fracking safe, and our support for additional protections does not mean we have confidence that fracking can be done safely or without pollution. No one should point to SB1715 as a model for how fracking can be done safely, or as evidence that the Sierra Club supports fracking, because we do not.

Now that SB1715 has become law, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a lot of work to do to prepare to implement the new law, and Sierra Club will remain vigilant in fighting for the strongest possible regulations on this dangerous practice.

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