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.

December 5, 2014

Media Bias is 25 Sports Writers and Zero Environment Reporters

Any news outlet that distributes information unflattering to Republicans or views out of step with conservative ideology will be hounded with cries of "liberal media bias." The badgering will continue until all news outlets are as "fair and balanced" as Fox News. But the most consequential expression of bias in the press is in what stories are covered and what's ignored.

I checked reporting staff listed on four of downstate Illinois' largest newspapers: The Peoria Journal-Star, Belleville News-Democrat, State Journal-Register, and Southern Illinoisan. They list 25 sports writers and editors between them. They name zero editors or reporters primarily dedicated to energy, climate change, and the environment. That's your media bias.

The same problem exists in national news outlets but the impacts hit harder in local news. The most important stories are sometimes covered by reporters who have limited subject background. Fewer environmental stories are covered at all. And when there's news about a fertilizer plant opening in central Illinois, for example, no one mentions that they're some of the most potentially dangerous facilities for workers and the environment.

I should acknowledge that I've been interviewed by a number of excellent reporters who do a good job covering energy issues. In particular, Springfield's alternative weekly, Illinois Times, has been picking up the stories others ignore for years. The Harrisburg Daily-Register doesn't shy away from asking tough questions about the coal industry. The best pro-environment editorials in the Southern are usually from, ironically enough, Sports Editor Les Winkeler.

But it's disappointing that there aren't more exceptions. Many other good reporters are limited by the decisions their publisher and editor make about assigning resources.

Newspapers often write about the influence campaign contributions have on politicians. I'd like to see the same principles of disclosure applied to the news industry. Why not release an annual report about advertising revenue from the fossil fuel industry plus the financial interests of media parent companies? Call me a cynic but I suspect those financial factors have something to do with the for-profit media's failure to focus on pollution and climate change.

What should we do then? There's no shortage of stories to be covered in Illinois with the recent expansion of coal mining, the threat of fracking, the future of coal plants on the line, and clean energy struggling to expand its presence. Twenty-five reporters wouldn't be enough!

This is why I'm launching Illinois Energy Justice. The site will chronicle energy issues from the front lines of the state's energy transition with writing by myself and others. It will also be a collaboration with grassroots groups to highlight their work on coal, fracking and clean energy.

My kickstarter page will fund the launch of a website and expenses for my first round of stories focusing on the work of grassroots groups opposed to fracking. I've broken several stories missed by others, including the state mine safety regulator who was taking political donations from a coal mine operator, and millions in state grants going to coal industry pork projects. I'd like to break many more.

If you're tired of environmental stories and viewpoints not getting the coverage they deserve, now is the time to do something about it by donating.

November 13, 2014

Profile in Cowardice: Senator Don Harmon Fracks Illinois

A clip from my latest up at HuffingtonPost

An industry lobbyist told reporters he was thrilled with the updated rules, while environmental groups were forced to admit they hadn't even seen the changes.
Senator Harmon directed the process as chair of the committee. He could have insisted the rules be made available to the public in advance. He could have insisted that changes be debated in public. He could have asked committee members to explain their vote. He could have done a roll call vote instead of a voice vote so citizens have a public record of where their representatives stand. He could have made the rules stronger or rejected them completely. Instead, he gave the oil & gas industry exactly what they wanted. 
The Illinois fracking law was negotiated by lobbyists behind closed doors with no southern Illinois environmentalists invited. The rules were finished the same way, but this time even the pro-regulation statehouse green groups were shut outside.
Thanks for reading and sharing.

November 12, 2014

It Doesn't Pay to Be a Fossil-Fuel Democrat on Election Day


This was a difficult election for Democrats and it was even worse for Democrats still pushing fossil fuels. The Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Coal Caucus lost his seat along with a slew of others who tried to prove they're as pro-coal, pro-oil, and pro-fracking as any Republican. 
There are plenty of examples like Grimes in Kentucky. Or Tennant and Nick Rahall in West Virginia who mimicked conservative talking points on coal in their losing races. Mary Landrieu is expected to lose in a Louisiana run-off. If you can't run on clean energy and climate change in a state that saw Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil disaster, then you're an incompetent politician. 
No state made the point more clearly than Illinois, where Democrats serious about climate won reelection while fossil-fuel Democrats lost. Governor Pat Quinn once bragged about passing a bill to launch fracking along with lead Senate sponsor Mike Frerichs. Quinn lost reelection after spending months avoiding the issue (and anti-fracking protesters).
Read the rest here and thanks for sharing.

November 11, 2014

All Illinois Democrats Have to Do for Re-Election Is...

My new blog at HuffPost. This may be the first Illinois election in years decided by downstate and the suburbs.
Quinn won 64.3% in Cook county, the same percentage he got in 2010. But with turnout down, he earned about 79,000 fewer votes out of Cook than last time. That's enough for a few Chicago-centric thinkers to claim, as they always do, that Cook county made the difference. But, even if Quinn had matched his 2010 turnout in Chicago, he still would have lost this election.

Also at Democrats for Progress and DailyKos.

November 5, 2014

Southern Illinois asks legislative committee to reject weak fracking rules

Yesterday Illinois was facing an environmental and economic crisis from fracking that was greenwashed by a Democratic Governor who told us regulation can make it safe. Voters were asked to choose between two pro-fracking candidates for Governor. Bruce Rauner won after many downstate voters decided they didn't like either choice and stayed home.

Illinois is now faced with an environmental crisis to be overseen by a Republican Governor who's unlikely to strictly enforce regulation. There's no more greenwashing fracking in Illinois. No politician can credibly claim they're protecting the environment with the weak law passed by the legislature. It's the state's top environmental threat.

The next politicians who may claim they can make fracking safe are legislators on JCAR. After delaying action until after election day, they're expected to vote on fracking rules Thursday. They must reject the rules to prevent poorly regulated fracking from moving forward under Bruce Rauner. Even strong rules would be meaningless if overseen by state regulatory agencies captured by industry. Passing the rules now, even with improvements requested by a few pro-fracking green groups in Chicago, would guarantee environmental disaster.

After JCAR rejects the rules, Pat Quinn has one last chance to fix his mistake by asking the legislature to pass a ban or moratorium on fracking during the upcoming veto session. It can still be done before Bruce Rauner takes office as Governor.

Southern Illinois grassroots environmental leaders sent the following letter asking JCAR to reject the rules.

November 4, 2014
Dear Members of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules:

The undersigned Illinois residents urge this committee to reject the Proposed Rules for the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act. We have identified numerous procedural deficiencies in the rulemaking process for these proposed rules, each of which is serious enough to have tainted the whole process. This Committee has the authority to reject the Proposed Rules, and we respectfully request that you do so at your November 6, 2014 meeting.

We have identified the following violations of Illinois statutory law committed during the rulemaking period for HFRA:
• IDNR failed to publish a summary of the 135 page proposed rulemaking in the regulatory agenda. (5 ILCS 100/5-60).
• IDNR failed to give sufficient notice of public hearings throughout Illinois; one hearing even received zero notice in the Illinois Register. (5 ILCS 100/5-40)
• IDNR failed to make an agency representative available to answer questions at any of the public hearings held in Illinois. (5 ILCS 100/5-40)
• IDNR refused some citizens admittance to the Chicago hearing. (5 ILCS 100/5-40(b))
• IDNR did not allow some citizens to speak at the Ina (Rend Lake College) hearing. (5 ILCS 100/5-40(b))
• IDNR provided an inadequate opportunity for the public to address the factual basis for its rulemaking depriving members of the public of complete participation in the rulemaking process. (5 ILCS 100/5-60)
• IDNR prejudiced the public's opportunity to comment, by making patently false statements in its first notice. (5 ILCS 100/5-40)
• IDNR failed to comply with the requirement of HFRA section 1-97 by not submitting the required report to the General Assembly by February 1, 2014, thereby depriving citizens the opportunity to evaluate that report during the limited time for public input on rulemaking. (225 ILCS 732/1-97)
• IDNR’s Delay in Publishing the Transcripts of the Public Hearings Prejudiced the Public’s Ability to Evaluate IDNR’s Rulemaking (5 ILCS 100/5-35)

In total, the statutory violations described here have deprived the public of its rights under the Illinois Administrative Procedure Act, and when considered cumulatively, the violations also amount to a violation of IDNR’s rulemaking duties under HFRA.

The rulemaking process failed in its essential purpose; the proposed rulemaking violated mandatory statutory and administrative rulemaking procedures and prejudiced the public’s right and ability to participate in this important rulemaking. If JCAR finalizes these rules, then these rules will be incomplete, inadequate, and invalidly enacted to the detriment of Illinois residents who are landowners, mineral interest owners, and members of the communities where high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing would occur.

The undersigned below also believe it is critical for this Committee to realize that at the present time, IDNR does not have an adequate budget nor staff to supervise high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing under the HFRA or to monitor compliance with HFRA permits and HFRA.

We have been concentrating on the procedural deficiencies of the rulemaking, as described above, but we also have the following concerns about the health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing that have been recorded in scientific research: contamination of water supplies, displacement of wildlife, noise and light pollutions, earthquakes and seismic risks, silica dust hazards, low level radiation exposure, and increased burdens on infrastructure, especially in rural communities.

Now is the time for JCAR to acknowledge the procedural deficiencies of this important rulemaking in our State’s history and to do the right thing in the best interest of Illinois residents. Please deny approval of the proposed HRFA rules.

Respectfully,
1. /s/ Ms. Natalie M. Laczek
2. /s/ Ms. Penni S. Livingston
3. /s/ Mr. Vito Amastrangelo
4. /s/ Ms. Tabitha Tripp
5. /s/ Mr. Sam Stearns
6. /s/ Mr. Mark Donham
7. /s/ Mr. Nathan Czuba
8. /s/ Annette McMichaels on behalf
of Southerners Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment SAFE

If you'd like to send your own message to members of JCAR by Wednesday morning you can find their contact information here.

October 23, 2014

Illinois Wasting Millions on Another Coal-to-Gas Pork Project

My new blog at Huffington Post is on the latest Illinois coal subsidy fail. 

The state of Illinois is throwing millions of taxpayer dollars at another coal-to-gas plant just two years after a similar project ended in failure.
The Coal Development Fund has so far given Homeland Fuels two grants totaling$4.25 million in taxpayer dollars. The first grant was awarded in 2013 to fund a study for the proposed "Coal to Diesel Pilot Project" next to their coal supplier, which will apparently be a nearby Chris Cline-owned mine in central Illinois. The company moved addresses from Hillsboro to Litchfield before receiving a second grant for $3,500,000. There's no indication of how the plant would limit their global warming emissions or other environmental impacts.

Read and share the rest.

October 21, 2014

More "victories" in Illinois fracking law that are functionally useless

I'm looking at registration forms submitted to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources by companies that want to frack Illinois.

One company with a notorious environmental record was able to check the box saying it has no history of violations because the form only asks if they had a violation on fracking in the past five years. Have a violation for conventional oil & gas operations? No problem. You've only been operating in Texas where almost no one gets held accountable? No problem.

It's another part of the Illinois fracking law that sounds good but is basically worthless in practice. As a friend wrote; it would be like one of us having a regular driver's license, getting multiple DUIs and speeding tickets, and then deciding we wanted to get a CDL (commercial drivers license). Without having a search on our previous driving record, without having to take a new test, and only having to pay a license fee. Then if we got caught again, all we would have to do is change our name, and we could start with a clean slate all over again.

This reminds me of the Chicago-based green groups who negotiated the fracking law proudly bragging about the supposed victory they won allowing cities to ban it. Yet, the likely impacted areas are mostly rural counties where banning within city limits is no meaningful barrier to frackers. Countywide bans, which would have a meaningful impact, aren't allowed.

On another topic, the fracking registration forms say no permits will be issued until the rules are finally approved. A few groups who are focused on crafting better regulation made a campaign around getting Quinn to not issue fracking permits until the rules are final. Apparently, Quinn's IDNR never considered anything else. That campaign appears to have been a chew toy that kept groups occupied in a way that doesn't challenge Quinn or change the politics around fracking.