Legislators, activists say it smooths transition from fossil fuels to solar, wind

The Midwest Generation Power Plant: “The question isn’t if the Waukegan coal plant will close, but when,” says state Rep. Rita Mayfield. (Flickr/Cheepshot)

The Midwest Generation Power Plant: “The question isn’t if the Waukegan coal plant will close, but when,” says state Rep. Rita Mayfield. (Flickr/Cheepshot)

By Ted Cox

Prospects are cloudy for the Clean Energy Jobs Act as it heads toward the General Assembly’s fall veto session next week.

Legislators and activists held a teleconference call Wednesday to urge passage of “the only energy legislation that comprehensively tries to act on the climate, but also give real support to Illinois energy workers and the communities that depend on them,” in the words of state Sen. Scott Bennett of Champaign, one of the lead sponsors.

Gov. Pritzker has been iffy about the bill’s immediate prospects, however, saying earlier this month, “I don’t know that we’ll be able to get to it during the veto session.”

“It is not lost on us that it has not been scheduled for a committee vote,” said Tracy Fox, of the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance and Illinois People’s Action. “I find it very disappointing, as does the coalition, that the veto session may pass without action on CEJA.”

Fox said, “There is a true urgency” to pass the bill, given that Vistra Energy has already announced plans to close coal power plants in Peoria, Canton, Havana, Hennepin, and Coffeen, while Peabody is pulling out of a mining complex in Saline County, which she called “one of the most depressed areas in southern Illinois.”

Bennett said that, without a “proactive” transition program, “the cost and impact of these closures fall on Illinois families and taxpayers.” He added that the purpose of CEJA is to “try to make sure that polluting energy corporations are the ones responsible for supporting this transition” from fossil fuels to clean energy sources like wind and solar.

Under CEJA, he said, fossil-fuel companies closing up shop would have to clear several hurdles. “They have to support local communities,” Bennett said. “They have to replace the lost tax revenue. And they have to bring in new investments” in the form of businesses creating new jobs to replace the old ones lost.

Bennett said it would make Illinois “a national leader in climate action,” adding, “It also revitalizes the economy while providing 100 percent clean energy.”

Renner Barsella, of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said CEJA “establishes a robust climate and economic transition plan that specifically helps workers and communities adapt and forge resilient, economic futures.” He added that, in the past, “systematic problems have created too few opportunities in growing industries like wind and solar for new workforce development from impacted communities and populations previously undertapped by the energy industry.”

Bennett pointed to coal ash in the Vermillion River as a primary reason CEJA is necessary. Pritzker signed a bill into law this summer dealing with coal ash, but CEJA would build on the bipartisan Future Energy Jobs Act enacted under the Rauner administration to take a more comprehensive approach to retraining workers in new fields and providing relief to communities as they make the transition.

State Rep. Rita Mayfield of Waukegan said she wanted the new law in place to deal with the inevitable closure of the Midwest Generation Power Plant in her community. “This plant has been operating for decades without a permit,” she said. “The question isn’t if the Waukegan coal plant will close, but when.

“We need to ensure that Waukegan isn’t left with an environmental mess on our hands,” she added. “Lands need to be reusable after the plant closes.

“It is absolutely essential that we have a transitional plan for energy and this coal plant that’s in my district,” Mayfield said. “We don’t want the taxpayers to have to pay for the cleanup.

“They’re polluting our air. They’re polluting our water. We need them to close, and we need a transition plan in place.”


“They’re polluting our air. They’re polluting our water. We need them to close, and we need a transition plan in place.”

State Rep. Rita Mayfield (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Juliana Pino of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization said solutions under CEJA would be “localized and community-driven,” as in training programs moving people into clean-energy jobs in wind, solar, electric cars and trucks, and general energy efficiency. “As we know, these industries are burgeoning,” she added.

A $20 million program on energy entrepreneurship and a contractor incubator would help generate new businesses and potentially move workers into their own clean-energy companies.

Fox said it would also create a Displaced Worker Bill of Rights, including demands for advanced notice of impending plant closures beyond the relatively short times the Vistra Energy communities have been given to confront life after the plants close. She said a $22.5 million part of the bill, on energy-empowerment zones and tax credits, would grant tax breaks to companies that hire displaced energy workers, while attracting clean-energy companies to those enterprise zones.

The bill, including a $210 million Energy Community Reinvestment Act, would be paid for in part through additional taxes on coal and gas power plants.

“We don’t just throw money at the problem,” Fox said. “We ensure that there are jobs at the end of the pipeline.”

Mayfield echoed the notes on urgency. “I think it is imperative that the Clean Energy Jobs Act gets called during the veto session,” she said. “We cannot hold this bill up while ComEd and Exelon work out their legal troubles. That is just not fair to the citizens of Illinois.”

Mayfield added that it was not the higher vote threshold required during the veto session that was snagging the bill. “I’ve talked with several of my colleagues,” she said. “I can confidently say that we have the votes in the House to pass the bill.”

Fox pointed to the Illinois Youth Climate Strike student protesters who’ve adopted CEJA as a key issue. “We saw the passion of our youth and their concern about their future with the climate strikes,” she said, “and we know the climate can’t wait.”

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October 23, 2019 at 05:47PM