April 20, 2015

Earth week screening of DamNation in Springfield

A free screening of the award-winning documentary DamNation is happening in Springfield on Thursday, April 23, 7pm. The film will be followed by guest speaker, professor Clark Bullard, who will speak on the locally proposed Hunter Dam. The Liberty Brew & View screening is hosted with Prairie Rivers Network at the Capital City Bar & Grill theater dining room.
This powerful film odyssey across America explores the sea change in our national attitude from pride in big dams as engineering wonders to the growing awareness that our own future is bound to the life and health of our rivers. Dam removal has moved beyond the fictional Monkey Wrench Gang to go mainstream. Where obsolete dams come down, rivers bound back to life, giving salmon and other wild fish the right of return to primeval spawning grounds, after decades without access. DamNation’s majestic cinematography and unexpected discoveries move through rivers and landscapes altered by dams, but also through a metamorphosis in values, from conquest of the natural world to knowing ourselves as part of nature.

April 8, 2015

Springfield Mayoral Election a Victory for Clean Energy

Illinois' largest public utility will now be overseen by a mayor who pledged to keep renewable energy as part of its energy mix.

Springfield's Democratic Mayor-elect Jim Langfelder deserves credit for talking about clean energy. Some candidates avoided the topic because it's controversial after a wind power contract became more costly than expected. With most local news outlets focused on utility finances and rate increases, Langfelder could have avoided taking a clear position on where our power comes from.

But voters were given a real choice between a modern energy mix with renewable energy or "we've always done it that way." Scare tactics about clean energy causing rate increases didn't work this time. Springfield is already a better clean energy leader than Chicago and now the progress can continue.

Coal was being mined in Springfield when Abraham Lincoln represented the city in the state legislature. But this year, a new clean energy future was a winning issue in a coal-country election.

April 6, 2015

Illinois Poll Shows Strong Opposition to Fracking

Nearly half of Illinois voters oppose fracking, according to a new poll by the Simon Institute. The statewide poll reveals 48.6% oppose fracking while only 31.8% believe it should be encouraged, even if there are economic benefits. Opponents outnumber supporters an all regions of the state, including downstate where fracking is promoted as a jobs plan.

The numbers reinforce that fracking is one of the issues which cost Governor Pat Quinn support among Democrats and independents in his losing re-election campaign. Illinois Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose fracking with 61.9% against and 19.7% in favor. Independents oppose it as well, with 48.3% against and 30.6% in support.

Any Illinois candidate looking for support from young voters should stand against fracking. A whopping 74% of 18-24 year-olds don't want it.

A solid 54% majority of Chicago residents are opposed. That's a bad sign for Rahm Emanuel who claims his aggregation deal is a clean energy victory, even though it powers Chicago with natural gas from the Marcellus shale fracking fields.

An election analysis released in January by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute identified low turnout among Democrats, and downstate opposition as reasons for Governor Pat Quinn losing re-election. During the campaign Quinn faced protests against his support for fracking, and as this poll shows, his position is unpopular among the Democratic base. With neither candidate for Governor taking a position against fracking, it left little reason for concerned voters to show up on election day.

There's no issue for which politicians and lobbyists in the statehouse bubble are more out of touch with Illinois voters than on fracking.

After a bill to regulate and launch fracking passed the Illinois legislature, industry lobbyists launched a campaign to portray opponents as a tiny fringe. Overwhelming public outcry against fracking at public hearings provided a reality check. A few accommodating statehouse green groups helped reinforced the false impression that regulation is a consensus middle ground. The Simon poll shows industry claims that fracking opposition is limited to a small group are outrageously false.

Some statehouse Democrats are still out of touch. Central Illinois Senator Dave Koehler recently introduced an amendment to the Illinois Clean Jobs bill that would allow some utilities to pay for converting coal plants to natural gas with a new fee charged to customers. The act creates a market-based carbon auction that may push coal plant operators to make minor upgrades or convert to natural gas. Koehler's amendment would help utilities to keep aging, polluting plants running at ratepayer expense rather than investing in new clean energy.

Most Illinois fracking is on hold, at least temporarily, due to low oil prices. Yet, the issue could play a roll in the 2016 election, particularly in Democratic primaries for U.S. Senate and Congress. Although some Democrats, like Pat Quinn and former Colorado Senator Mark Udall, have supported fracking regulation as a compromise middle crowd, it's a position that alienates voters on both sides of the issue while gaining support from no one but industry donors. Democratic candidates in a competitive primary would be smart to support a ban on fracking.

The poll question adopts a "jobs v. the environment" narrative which assumes fracking would benefit the economy. But, many residents oppose fracking because they don't believe another boom and bust extraction cycle will help the downstate economy. Most people don't want to locate their business or home in a community with poisoned water and air.

Low oil prices and public opposition provide an opportunity for downstate Illinois to build a healthy economy without the destructive impacts of fracking. As the poll shows, many voters are looking for leaders who offer more than empty assurances that regulation will make fracking safe or provide good jobs.

March 20, 2015

Department of Interior Announces Big Rock Candy Mountain Management Plan

The U.S. Department of Interior made three announcements today. One establishes rules to protect the lemonade springs at Big Rock Candy Mountain. Second, is a management plan for unicorn populations on public lands.

The third announcement is for rules to produce safe, responsible fracking. Clearly announced on the same day because all three are all equally realistic things that exist in the same world of make believe.

March 19, 2015

America's Fracking Mayor: Rahm Emanuel

Sandra Steingraber gave an excellent comment for my new piece about Chicago's energy aggregation contract. 

I grew up Illinois coal country, just downwind from a massive, coal-burning power plant that sent all its power north to Chicago. When I was in high school, in the 1970s, that plant was the biggest polluter in the state, and everyone in my home town of Pekin all suffered from breathing its emissions. My 84-year-old mom, a life-long non-smoker, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. And because that coal, when it burned, sent mercury raining down on our river, the local fish became too poisoned to eat.

Unfortunately, Chicago residents have been sold a bill of goods by officials who misrepresented a switch from coal to natural gas as 'clean' energy. Natural gas, predominately extracted by fracking, is anything but clean, and once again, people far from Chicagoland will suffer so that Chicagoans can turn on the lights. This time, it's Pennsylvania children living in the shale fields, rather than downstate Illinois kids living by the strip mines, whose health will be sacrificed. So, how is that progress?

For the climate, extraction by fracking results in tremendous leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more damaging for the climate than carbon dioxide over 20 years. For people, those living near fracking suffer a range of health ailments including respiratory illnesses, birth defects, and the threat of contaminated water and earthquakes. Chicagoans deserve better than false representations of natural gas as a clean power source; they need true leadership that boldly moves to renewable energy.
It's impossible to take Rahm seriously as an environmental leader after he sold fracking as clean energy. Read the rest at HuffingtonPost.

February 12, 2015

Lincoln loved taxing the rich

Happy birthday Abraham Lincoln!

When Lincoln anniversaries come around I sometimes enjoy comparing the views of the first Republican president to the Republican party of today. Tax policies offer a stark contrast. Lincoln supported progressive income tax structures that asked the rich to pay their fair share.

As a member of the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln defended a property tax because it would mostly be paid by the wealthy. Paul Simon's book, Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness, quotes Lincoln's letter on the tax.
...I believe it can be sustained, because it does not increase the tax upon the "many poor" but upon the "wealthy few" by taxing the land that is worth $50 or $100 per acre, in proportion to its value, instead of, as heretofore, no more than that which was worth $5 per acre. This valuable land, as is well known, belongs, not to the poor, but to the wealthy citizen.

On the other hand, the wealthy can not justly complain, because the change is equitable within itself, and also a sine qua non to a compliance with the Constitution. If, however, the wealthy should, regardless of the justness of the complaint, complain of the change, it is still to be remembered, that they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.
Very Respectfully,
A. Lincoln
We live in different times. The voice of the wealthy few manage to outweigh the many poor in most elections thanks to unrestricted campaign spending. Illinois' new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has discussed supporting a sales tax increase that would place a greater burden on the middle class and poor, rather than the 1% Lincoln preferred taxing.

As President, Lincoln created the first income tax. It was so progressive that most Americans paid nothing at all. Republicans today sometimes complain that half of Americans supposedly pay no income tax. That's exactly what Lincoln had in mind when he established a tax on those most able to pay.

Somehow, Lincoln's populist views sound more modern and relevant than today's Republican party that's captured by perpetually complaining billionaires.

February 10, 2015

Hunter Lake is still the dumbest idea in Springfield

I can't believe I still have to write about this. Hunter Lake is the dumbest idea going Springfield. Here's why:

1) There are good reasons why the permits were never approved last time and they still won't be approved after more money is wasted trying again. New dams like this one aren't getting built anymore. Anywhere.

2) Water usage is growing nowhere near the growth estimates CWLP used to demonstrate a supposed need. Water efficiency programs are working. And no, those programs have nothing to do with watering your lawn or washing your car.

3) The biggest water hogs in Springfield are the older coal power plants. They have a limited lifespan. When the two oldest coal boilers shut down then water usage will drop. A LOT. Which means there's zero need for a new Hunter mud flat.

4) Sunk cost fallacy. The fact that a lot of money has already been wasted on a bad idea is not a good reason to waste even more. I learned this in my freshman microeconomics course.

There's no good reason to waste millions more on a project nobody needs. Hunter Lake is nothing but a pork barrel project to make money for those who will finance and build it at taxpayer expense. It serves no other purpose.

Turn the land into a top notch nature area instead so Springfield will finally benefit from getting out of this foolish moneypit. We might even recover some of our losses down the road by selling the land to the Department of Natural Resources.

January 20, 2015

Historic Grassroots Victory Stops Central Illinois Coal Mine

An eight year battle against a central Illinois strip mine ends in victory for the community of Canton and Orion township. An arm of Springfield Coal Company asked the Department of Natural Resources to terminate their permit for their North Canton Mine before a court hearing challenging errors in permit approval.

"The naysayers told us we couldn't fight city hall and the mine. They have more money. But we stayed the course," said Brenda Dilts, Chair of Canton Area Citizens for Environmental Issues.

The permit challenge hinged on the mine's potential impact to streams and Canton Lake, which supplies water to roughly 20,000 people, but opposition rallied around many ways the community would be harmed, including noise, water well contamination, heavy truck traffic, and airborne pollutants. Only a road and fence would have separated the mine from residents in Orion township, Dilts said. "Now people are free to enjoy their country living and well water."

Dilts wrote a letter to the editor in 2006 after hearing a presentation by the company and the Department of Natural Resources at a city council meeting. "I came home from vacation to voicemails messages full of support for my letter. Only one message was negative. We decided to start having meetings. Twelve people came at first to write letters. Then we had 25 and soon we outgrew our meeting space at the library. We organized until we became a legitimate source of pain for the company."

Read the rest at EcoWatch.

January 16, 2015

Governor Rauner's Environment & Energy Adviser Represents Many of Illinois' Worst Polluters

Check out my latest at Huffington Post blog.

One of Bruce Rauner's first appointments as Governor is a troubling sign for citizens hoping he'll protect the public and environment from toxic pollutants. Rauner's new Policy Adviser for Environment & Energy is Alec Messina, previously Executive Director and registered lobbyist for the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group (IERG).

At IERG, Messina represented the interests of some of the state's largest polluters, including Peabody Energy, ExxonMobil, Chris Cline's Foresight Energy, Prairie State Generating Company, Dynegy Midwest Generation, Ameren, ADM and others.

I write more about the appointment and Rauner's first policy statements on energy at the link.

Also worth reading is Bruce Rushton's article at Illinois Times about some of Messina's actions in the Blagojevich administration.

January 2, 2015

Can Illinois Learn From New York's Victory Against Fracking?

Illinois environmentalists are cheering the spectacular success of the movement to ban fracking in New York. The victory is justifiably spurring reflection on how it was done. What happened in New York that Illinois environmentalists can learn from?

  • Environmental and public health groups made an unambiguous, united push for a ban or moratorium, not regulation.
  • They kept constant, aggressive grassroots pressure on Governor Cuomo and other politicians, especially during election season.
  • State government conducted a thorough study on potential public health impacts before fracking began.
  • They took the fight to small towns and potentially impacted rural areas, not just New York City.
  • As Mark Ruffalo wrote, "The fact that we didn't let the big greens come in and make back room deals was also important to note."
  • They engaged in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, including over 90 arrests near Seneca Lake since October.

Essentially, New York fractivists took the opposite approach of most big green groups active in the Illinois statehouse.

Illinois greens started with a basic chemical disclosure bill several years ago rather than organizing the passionate grassroots desire for a ban. Although there were efforts to ask legislators to pass a moratorium, statehouse green groups remained focused on various regulatory bills. Some of them eventually won a seat at the negotiating table with industry lobbyists to write a regulatory law by ignoring the loud and frequent objection of environmentalists in impacted areas who said regulation cannot make fracking safe.

During the past year, pro-regulation groups joined Governor Pat Quinn in remaining silent about his unpopular support for fracking. Sierra Club even issued a greenwash endorsement of Quinn as a "climate leader" despite his horrible record on fossil fuel extraction.

Several groups continued to engage in the regulatory process without meaningful buy-in or communication with the downstate anti-fracking movement. They tell environmental audiences they prefer a ban, but told legislators they'll settle for regulation. The result is a deeply divided movement that's less effective on all energy issues.

What's next for Illinois?

More fractivists are focusing on county government, like a victory lead by Illinois People's Action to stop a proposed oil drill in McLean county. Union county is forming a group to study the impacts of fracking and conventional drilling at the urging of the Shawnee Sentinels. There's a good reason why Illinois law doesn't allow counties to ban fracking. Some of them would actually do it.

In southern Illinois, lifelong residents and grandmothers are training to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to stop fracking operations. Additionally, momentum is building to form a coalition similar to New York that will coordinate statewide action between groups.

Illinoisans made their opposition to fracking clear through unprecedented participation in the public hearing process and by choosing not to show up for Pat Quinn on election day. But the industry's farcical campaign to marginalize fractivists as a tiny fringe continues to have lingering influence among legislators and reporters in the statehouse. One result is inadequate coverage given to the anti-fracking movement. Fractivists can't rely on regional news outlets traditionally sympathetic to fossil fuel interests to get our message out.

What the movement does next year won't make the impact it should if most of the public and politicians don't hear about it. That's why the movement needs it's own source for accurate, full coverage of how extraction industries are impacting the state.

Illinois environmentalists had discouraging setbacks in 2014. Resolving to follow New York's example will bring more success in 2015.