Farm Energy

Greenwire: Midwest law center can compromise but doesn’t fear a fight

Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, February 27, 2015

Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.

Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.

His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.

“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”

ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.

Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.

Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.

“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”

Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.

Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.

He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.

In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.

The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.

The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.

“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”

Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.

The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.

At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.

Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.

“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.

ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.

Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.

Looking for opportunity

ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.

Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.

“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”

To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.

Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.

“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.

Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.

“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”

That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.

Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.

“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.

He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.

“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”

Battling energy tycoon

Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.

ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.

And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.

There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.

An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.

Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.

McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.

Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.

ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.

They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.

Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”

There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.

Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.

“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”

Report: Wisconsin Renewable Energy Sector Holds 500+ Businesses

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: David Jakubiak, Environmental Law & Policy Center, 312.795.3713 or DJakubiak@elpc.org

 

ELPC finds almost 7,000 working in wind, solar supply chain companies

MADISON – More than 500 Wisconsin companies serve wind power and solar energy markets, providing jobs to people across the state who are manufacturing, financing, designing, engineering, installing and maintaining renewable energy projects here and across the region, a study released Wednesday by the Environmental Law & Policy Center found.

“Our supply chain report provides numerous examples of new and existing businesses finding new growth opportunities from renewable energy, from Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien to Green Bay to Superior,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate in ELPC’s Madison office. “Wisconsin has a strong manufacturing base and well-trained workforce that can export renewable energy products to a world that wants more clean energy with each passing year.”

The report was developed through an analysis of data from several industry groups. The companies were then individually contacted to confirm their supply chain role. In addition to the wide breadth of businesses captured in the report, the findings also offer insights into the types of businesses driving Wisconsin’s growing renewable energy sector. For example, the average size of a renewable energy supply chain business in Wisconsin is 12.5 people. A forthcoming analysis of Illinois’ supply chain found companies there employing, on average, almost 50 people.

“Wisconsin’s renewable energy economy is driven by small businesses spread across the state, rather than by a few very large employers,” said John Paul Jewell, Research Coordinator at ELPC.

The report identified 316 companies involved in Wisconsin’s solar energy supply chain and more than 230 companies involved in the state’s wind power supply chain.  The companies provide many local stories across the state.

For businesses involved in the installation and construction of wind and solar projects, a thriving supply chain sector means increased economic activity within Wisconsin, but it also signals a shift to modern, reliable, more cost-effective electric supply.

“SunVest and other Wisconsin businesses in the renewable energy industry are working hard to innovate and develop new technologies to bring our energy costs down,” said Matt Neumann, President of SunVest Solar Inc. of Pewaukee. “Wisconsin’s energy costs have increased at 2.5 times the rate of inflation for the last 10 years — it’s time to consider policy that supports new technologies with the hope of a less expensive energy future for our State.”

To download a PDF of the report visit www.elpc.org/WisconsinSupplyChain.

ELPC Presents at USDA’s Forum on Rural Energy for America

???????????????????????????????On Friday, Feb. 6th, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate Andy Olsen spoke at the USDA’s National Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Stakeholder Forum, which outlined program improvements since REAP’s recent overhaul and highlighted stakeholder successes. To access a free webcast of the event, click here.

ABC7 Chicago: Illinois Officials Applaud New EPA Rule on Emissions

CHICAGO (WLS) –Illinois officials say the state is well-equipped to meet new power plant emissions goals. The Obama Administration unveiled a plan Monday to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent by the year 2030. It sets the first national limits on carbon dioxide and will further diminish the use of coal in electrical production.

The proposal sets off a complex process in which the 50 states will each determine how to meet customized targets set by the EPA and then submit those plans for approval.

“It is important that we take serious, comprehensive action to reduce carbon emissions,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, “so I look forward to reviewing the draft guidelines of the federal plan in detail and helping to develop a flexible and effective approach for Illinois.”

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Crain’s Chicago Business: The skinny on how Obama’s greenhouse rule affects Illinois

You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers on what’s in store in Illinois now that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its long-awaited proposed rule for reducing carbon emissions from power plants.

Explain in brief what the Obama administration’s climate change rule is all about.

Frustrated by inaction by Congress, President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is claiming the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulated carbon emissions by power plants. Today it issued a proposed rule, which calls on states to take the lead in reducing emissions from power generators within their borders and gives them flexibility in how to do it.

Are Illinois power plants a source of significant emissions?

Yes, indeed. Only five other states emitted more greenhouse gases from power plants than Illinois in 2012, according to EPA. And while the Obama administration is saying that the proposed rule requires a 30 percent reduction of carbon from the power sector by 2030 based on their emissions in 2005, the reductions don’t fall equally state by state. Illinois is being asked to cut its power-plant emissions by 33 percent from its 2012 emissions. Only two other Midwestern states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, are being asked to do more. Strangely, neighboring Indiana, which emits more greenhouse gases than far larger Illinois thanks to its heavy dependence on carbon-heavy coal, must cut its emissions by only 20 percent.

What’s the time frame for action?

EPA is on a tight time line. The proposed rule must be made final in a year. States have until 2016 to come up with their plans. That won’t stop Illinois from taking the issue on earlier, thanks mainly to the lobbying exertions of Chicago-based Exelon Corp., whose six nuclear plants in Illinois stand to benefit financially from quicker action. State legislative leaders have signaled that they will consider far-reaching legislation to comply with the regulations next spring.

Why is Illinois in such a rush to enact changes that are likely to raise its residents’ electric bills?

Exelon, which owns Commonwealth Edison Co., is one of the most influential companies in Illinois. It has claimed that three of its six nukes in Illinois are losing money, largely due to competition in western Illinois from close-by wind farms. The company sees compliance with EPA’s rule as a means to boost revenues at its in-state plants. It argues that compliance with the rule will be next to impossible for Illinois if even one of its nuclear plants close, since nukes are virtually carbon-free and account for nearly half of the electricity produced here.

Which direction are lawmakers leaning in addressing the situation?

Every direction. Last week the Illinois House passed two resolutions dealing with the then-expected EPA regulations. One, sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, effectively called on EPA and other state and federal agencies to do everything they could to promote retention of Exelon’s nukes. The other, introduced in January and tied to a state-by-state pro-coal effort by an organization tied to the Koch brothers, called on EPA to allow Illinois to take longer to comply with the rule and to meet less stringent standards if it desires in the interest of keeping coal-fired power plants open. “The House has passed two resolutions that point in two different directions that are hard to reconcile in a policy way,” says Howard Learner, executive direction of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which has battled coal plants for years.

Continue Reading this Article.

EPA Carbon Pollution Standards Offer Clear Path Forward

STATEMENT BY HOWARD A. LEARNER
Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

CHICAGO – Howard A. Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, issued the following statement regarding the U.S. EPA’s proposed carbon pollution reduction standards issued on Monday:

“These carbon pollution reduction standards will drive technological innovation for a cleaner environment and protecting the public’s health.  Solving our climate change problems by cleaning up the energy sector is necessary to fulfill our moral obligation to our children and a better future,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Learner continued:  “The United State Supreme Court held that the U.S. EPA has both legal authority and responsibility under the Clean Air Act to set standards to reduce carbon pollution to safe levels. Now, it’s time for the engineers and technical specialists to develop cost-effective solutions and unleash innovative new clean energy technologies that can both repower our economy and achieve better environmental protection.”

“The Midwest, alone, is responsible for about five percent of global greenhouse gas pollution and states like Illinois and Iowa are positioned to lead with wind power, solar energy and energy efficiency development solutions that spur economic growth while reducing carbon pollution. We commend the Obama Administration for advancing these carbon pollution reduction standards on a clear path forward,” said Learner.

New ELPC Report: Farm Energy Success Stories (3rd Edition)

FESS_2014_CoverThe new edition of ELPC’s Farm Energy Success Stories features over a dozen projects from across the nation funded by the Farm Bill’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which ELPC has long championed.  These projects span a wide variety of technologies — including biomass, anaerobic digesters, energy efficiency, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind — that have had a positive impact on rural development.

The new Farm Bill passed earlier in 2014 provides $881 million for Energy Title programs like REAP over 10 years, benefiting small- and mid-sized farms and ranches, as well as rural small businesses. ELPC’s Farm Bill Clean Energy Team has led the charge to extend the Farm Bill’s Energy Title programs and make these programs work well on the ground.

Learn more at ELPC’s www.FarmEnergy.org.

ELPC’s Andy Olsen talks Farm Energy with Farm Radio

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ELPC’s Andy Olsen joined the National Association of Farm Broadcasters to discuss the Energy Title in the recently passed Farm Bill. ELPC worked hard to maintain support for the important program with helps bring clean, renewable energy projects to rural communities.

“The top-funded program is the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants and loan guarantees to farmers, ranchers, and rural small businesses and rural electric cooperatives to install energy efficiency and also a wide range of renewable energy technologies,” Olsen explained. “And that received $250 million in mandatory funding over 5 years. The next priority, in terms of funding, is the Biorefinery Systems Program, and that program provides loan guarantees for advanced biofuel production plants. This is an important program to get cellulosic biofuels, as well as other new biomass technologies, in place.”

Listen to the story here:

Olsen explained the difference between a grant and loan guarantee.

“A grant is actually a cost share from the federal government in a project. They may pick up, say, 25% of the cost for an activity. Whereas a loan guarantee basically says the banker wants to provide a loan to get a project built, then the federal government will cover a certain percentage of that loan in the event of a default.”

REAP can serve every state and every agricultural sector, according to Olsen.

“The eligible recipients for that are agriculture producers of all sorts, urban and rural, as well as rural small businesses, and rural small businesses include rural electric cooperatives. And the technologies that are supported in this are pretty broad so that every ag sector can choose the technology that best meets their needs. This has been used for cutting energy bills for producers and boosting their profits in a wide range of uses for a wide range of sectors.”

People can submit applications now for REAP funding and find information at FarmEnergy.org. Deadlines have yet to be announced, but Olsen said USDA staff are working on getting those notices out.

Think Progress: What The New Farm Bill Means For Energy And The Environment

House and Senate negotiators unveiled a new five-year Farm Bill on Monday, a $956 billion piece of legislation that’s been worked on for the past two years and, if passed, will be in effect for the next five.

The House is expected to vote on the bill on Wednesday, with the Senate voting sometime after. The bipartisan bill has gained attention from some liberals for its cuts to food stamps — a program that makes up about 79 percent of the Farm Bill’s cost — and from some conservatives, who think the current bill doesn’t save enough compared to the current funding. But there’s also several energy and environmental implications in this Farm Bill, especially in the realm of conservation, which at $56 billion makes up 6 percent of the bill’s total funding.

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

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ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now

ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now