Drive for clean air draws Missourians to Washington to try out lobbying | St. Louis Public Radio

Drive for clean air draws Missourians to Washington to try out lobbying

Sep 10, 2015

Six Missouri residents, all actively involved with environment issues for reasons ranging from financial to religious, traveled to Washington this week to support the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan on Capitol Hill. The White House is pushing hard to advance several administrative rules it says will help clean the environment and fight global warning.  A consortium of environmental organizations including, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and others is paying for the group's travel expenses.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Power Plan will reduce carbon emissions from power plants, over the next 15 years, to a level more than 30 percent below those recorded in 2005. Opponents, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., say the plan amounts to little more than an attack on coal and coal-fired power plants. Blunt also says the technology necessary to bring about the kind of reductions the EPA is targeting will prove costly for power companies and ratepayers.

That’s not how Ann McGregor of Kansas City sees the issue. “I’m probably an environmentalist because of my parents, because they actually made a living off the land," she said. "So, first hand, I see the nexus between clean land, air and water and life itself. There’s really no separation between the two.”

McGregor, who grew up on a farm in southern Missouri, is a sales representative for what she calls a traditional energy company that provides natural gas to commercial and industrial customers in the Kansas City area. She says the natural gas industry is “mature” with little room for significant growth, and notes that the company is moving into solar power, seeing it as an opportunity for “huge growth potential.”

From left, Gayle Thackrey, Bridgeton; Adam Stipanovich, Houston; Ann McGregor, Kansas City; Jennifer Conner, Pierce City; John Hickey, St. Louis; Gerald Nickelson, Washington
Credit Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

Adam Stipanovich is director of business development for Missouri Sun Solar, a solar panel company with about 50 employees in the Springfield area. He says that “no one knows what the future of fossil fuel holds, but I do know for a fact those costs are going to continue going up.”

Even with the likelihood of future rate increases for power from coal-fired power plants, solar-power still faces economic challenges. Stipanovich says that without an extension of the solar investment tax credit, set to expire at the end of next year, his company may be forced to lay off workers.

Stipanovich sees fossil fuels as a losing gamble in the long run. “When you put in a new natural gas plant, new coal plant, retrofit a coal plant to natural gas, you know you have a lifetime of costs in fossil fuels. When you pay for a solar panel,” he says, “it’s going to produce a ton of power and you’re never going to have to pay it again.”

Gayle Thackery works for the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in Bridgeton, who have also been active in pushing for a clean up of radioactive material from the Westlake Landfill. “I’ve come to know God’s presence through nature," she said, "and I’m observing that nature is declining, and it really worries me.” She made the trip to Washington this week to “make sure that our senators and representatives know that there’s an urgency to the Clean Power Plan to get it started immediately.”

If timing for the plan stays on track, power plants would have until 2022 before being required to phase-in changes and then ramping up those reductions to the target levels in 15 years down the road in 2030.

For Gerald Nickelson, the immediate past president of a union local in Washington, Mo., the push to clean power means good jobs following the closure of two auto plants in the area over the last several years. He says his employer, CG Power Systems, builds wind and solar power transformers and has hired roughly 150 to 160 people in the past five years.   “I would say 70 to 80 percent of those people came from the former UAW plant in Fenton and the former UAW plant, Integram, in Pacific.”

Nickelson says he’s also concerned about the condition of the environment his three children will inherit. “I drive to work every day and I see that coal burning plant in Labadie. On a clear day, I can see what’s chugging out of those stacks … and I want to leave them a cleaner environment.”

John Hickey, the chapter director of the Missouri Sierra Club headed up the group from the state. He’s well known for his work in Jefferson City with the Missouri Clean Energy Coalition. “That’s about three dozen organizations that all agree that it’s important to limit carbon pollution and to support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan,” he said. The motivation for his work is his two young children. “I want to leave a world that’s livable to them when they grow up.”

Jennifer Conner, an organic farmer from near Springfield, says, “First and foremost, it’s for my daughter, who’s two and a half.” Conner and her husband are concerned about the impact a proposed coal ash landfill could have on well water in southwestern Missouri. She used to work for the state Department of Natural Resources in hazardous waste enforcement. “Coal ash contains things like mercury, chromium, lead, heavy metals and stuff you don’t want in your drinking water,” she said.

The group spoke with St. Louis Public Radio Wednesday evening, shortly after arriving in Washington. Asked what she expected to happen when they visit with lawmakers, Conner said with a laugh, “I have no idea. I have never lobbied in my life …, but I have to say that to be a lobbyist for clean water, clean air and a clean land is probably the most noble thing I can think of to lobby for.”