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Government, Politics & Issues

Metro East Lawmakers Helped Kill Energy Bill That Would Force Coal Plant Closure

Protesters called on state Sen. Chris Belt, D-Swansea, on June 4, 2021 to support closing the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa as part of comprehensive energy reform in Illinois. The state Senate adjourned without passing a bill that would have closed a the Prairie State Energy Campus in southern Illinois.
Kelsey Landis
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Protesters on June 4 called on state Sen. Chris Belt, D-Swansea, to support closing the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa as part of comprehensive energy reform in Illinois. The state Senate adjourned without passing a bill that would have closed a the Prairie State Energy Campus in southern Illinois.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

The forced closure of a southwestern Illinois coal plant is off the table for now after lawmakers, including metro-east Republicans and Democrats, united in opposition to energy legislation this week.

The state Senate adjourned from a special session Tuesday after negotiators failed to make a deal that would satisfy environmentalists, unions, utilities and pro-coal legislators. One sticking point was how to eventually decommission the coal-fired Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa and the City, Water, Light, and Power plant in Springfield.

A plan from earlier in the week would have forced the closure of the plants by 2035. Central and southern Illinois lawmakers came together to oppose that measure over concerns about utility bill increases, job loss and reliable energy, said state Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said he’s confident different groups can come together under a new plan, but downstate lawmakers aren’t so sure.

“I don’t know how you move these sections closer together if southern and central Illinois voices are being drowned out,” Bryant said.

Prairie State sits in the district represented by state Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, who said municipalities that own shares of the coal plant are “on the hook for $4 billion in debt” up to 2050 whether they get energy from it or not. Thirty-six Illinois municipalities such as Highland, Mascoutah and Freeburg are locked into long-term contracts to pay for the construction debt of Prairie State. He added that Illinois doesn’t generate enough renewable energy to produce reliable electricity.

“In this bill, they’re going to retrain our workers. Our schools, our taxing districts, they’re going to send millions down here and help us all out with that,” Meier said. “But let’s talk about some broken promises. Let’s see what southern Illinois gets. ... Why should we believe any promise they make to us? It’s not going to happen.”

Two metro-east Democrats also opposed the legislation. A group of 52 lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker decrying the proposed closure of coal-fired power plants. State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, and state Sen. Chris Belt, D-Swansea, both signed despite recent criticism from environmental activists for not supporting legislation that would close Prairie State.

“If legislation is enacted to close these plants in 2035, before the end of their useful lives, there will be devastating consequences,” the letter said. “Thousands of employees will lose their jobs, stifling economic activity in areas of the state where jobs can often be hard to come by.”

At a recent protest outside Belt’s office in East St. Louis, Rev. J. Kevin James of Macedonia Baptist Church recognized the senator’s achievements as a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, but called on him to support closing Prairie State.

“While we celebrate the successes we have had and the accomplishments that Senator Belt has made, we cannot let moments of celebration overshadow our responsibility to environmental justice,” James said.

Pritzker said a further negotiated bill could give concessions to the coal industry. One proposal would force coal plants to capture carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, a developing technology known as carbon sequestration, potentially allowing the coal plants to operate until 2045.

“Let me make myself perfectly clear. Our long-term goal is to create meaningful climate change policy that makes Illinois a leader in protecting our people, the environment and the clean energy industry that we can grow,” Pritzker said at a news conference in Springfield Wednesday. “That means that a bill claiming to contain meaningful decarbonization measures but does not pass muster on the details, and does not move us toward a clean energy economy, is not a real climate bill.”

Harmon, the Senate president, said legislative leaders were awaiting environmentalists and labor representatives to work out their differences so the General Assembly could return for a vote, Capitol News Illinois reported. It’s an example of how lawmakers give too much power to “special interest groups,” said state Rep. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville.

“You have all these special interest groups, you have all these insiders,” Plummer said. “These things are being hashed out behind closed doors. Who is in that room representing the ratepayers? Who is in that room representing the people paying the bills?”

While opponents want more time to build up renewable infrastructure and phase out coal, clean energy advocate J.C. Kibbey of the Natural Resources Defense Council says every day lost on energy legislation is a day lost to devastating climate change. The United States needs to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050 in order to help stabilize Earth’s temperature, Kibbey said.

“Wealthy countries like the U.S. and forward thinking states like Illinois are going to have to have to move more quickly than that to avoid catastrophic climate change,” Kibbey said. “That’s just common sense.”

Jack Darin, director of the environmental group Sierra Club Illinois, called the impasse “beyond disappointing.”

“Illinois’ largest polluter was again able to stall this plan to deliver clean air, jobs, and equity to Illinois communities,” Darin said in an emailed statement. “We are delayed, but not defeated, and our work to deliver a better future to Illinois will continue until we’ve secured a plan to get our state to a 100% clean energy future by transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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