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.”

Electric Vehicles at the Chicago Auto Show: This is Only the Beginning


As the Chicago Auto Show wraps up, electric vehicles continue to gain traction among both consumers and automakers as sensible, affordable and fun alternatives to traditional cars. Here are some industry highlights heading into the next year of EV sales in the Midwest and nationally:

  • The Chicago Auto Show is the world’s largest auto show and this year features 10 EVs – including the very popular Nissan Leaf, which is “normalizing” EV ownership; the next generation of the Chevy Volt, which features more range (50 miles) and a sportier look; the brand new BMW i3, which is bringing regenerative breaking to a whole new level; the super-high-end Porsche Panamera E-Hybrid, which looks like the Batmobile; and many others. Very cool.
  • General Motors kicked off the Chicago Auto Show with big news – Production will begin soon on its new, all-electric Chevy Bolt (not to be confused with the hybrid-electric Volt). The Bolt promises a 200-mile range at a $30,000 price tag (after rebates), which many predict will be a winning combination. (It’s already a win for Orion Township, Mich., where the cars will be manufactured.) Stay tuned.
  • “Electrification” is clearly one of the tools that automakers are using to meet new CAFÉ standards, which require average fuel efficiency of 54.5 mpg by 2025 – more than twice the standard for 2010. Along with smaller engines, lighter materials and better aerodynamics, all-electric and hybrid-electric models are bringing us the next generation of clean cars.

EV sales have been a small slice of the overall car-buying pie. But let’s not forget that the now-ubiquitous Toyota Prius sold only 5,600 units in its first 12 months of production; in comparison, Chevy sold 7,600 Volts and Tesla sold 11,350 of its Model S during their first 12 months of production. Now we have more educated buyers, and the technology is constantly improving. This is only the beginning, folks.

Please check out ELPC’s www.PlugInChicagoMetro.org for the latest news, trends and tips on EVs around the Midwest and nationally.

Yale Climate Connections: Upper Michigan’s Energy Future

At 450 megawatts of energy, Presque Isle Power Plant is the largest provider of electricity in a 16,000 square mile section of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

But the coal plant, built in the 1950s, needs expensive upgrades to meet new pollution control standards. The owner of Presque Isle wants to close the plant, but energy regulators want to keep it open — with the upgrades paid by the public — until other sources of electricity are ready.


Howard Learner, Executive Director of the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center, however, believes the owners, not the public, should be responsible for the upgrades.

LEARNER: “The economics of the Presque Isle Coal Plant are that the polluter should incorporate the realistic costs of cleaning up the pollution within its operating costs and not be, in effect, requiring the public to subsidize it.”

The state is considering several new sources, such as importing electricity from Wisconsin, increasing the use of wind and solar, or building new natural gas or biomass power plants. As other communities struggle to decide what to do with old, polluting power plants, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is worth watching.

Listen to the Audio Cast Online

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.

Close to Victory: Ending the SS Badger’s Dumping Toxic Coal Ash into Lake Michigan

We’re on the verge of victory in stopping the SS Badger’s longstanding dumping of 1,000,000 pounds of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan each summer. The car ferry’s owners are now moving to comply with a federal court consent decree by capturing and then lawfully disposing the toxic coal ash. This is a significant step in the right direction for reducing toxic pollution of the Great Lakes. It reaffirms the principle that no business should be permitted to use the Great Lakes as a dumping ground for toxics.

This progress follows a strong campaign led by the Environmental Law & Policy Center with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and our good partner colleagues at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and others. Here’s what happened and what comes next:

The 60-year-old SS Badger is the last coal-burning ship on the Great Lakes. For too many years, the resulting coal ash – containing toxic materials – has been moved from the ship’s boilers to an on-board retention area, where it’s mixed with Lake Michigan water and then discharged into the lake as toxic slurry. Public pressure and the SS Badger’s continued pollution led to an action by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that resulted in a binding consent decree filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Following the consent decree, last year, SS Badger operators installed new digital combustion controls that enable the ship to run more efficiently, burning about 15% less coal on its trips from Manitowoc, WI, to Ludington, MI. The SS Badger operators are now scheduled to install a new system that will move the coal ash along a conveyor belt between the ship’s boilers and four containment bins. Those bins will later be moved to an appropriate land-based site, possibly for re-sale as a cement filler. This kind of “encapsulated reuse” is one of the better scenarios for handling toxic coal ash.

This has been tough sledding. Working together, we’re on the verge of finally stopping the SS Badger’s dumping of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan. Polluting the Great Lakes this way should not be tolerated. We’re expanding ELPC’s Great Lakes protection work and achieving progress. For more information on ways that you can help ELPC to protect our Great Lakes, please visit www.ProtectOurLakes.org.

Greenwire: Groups pressure Congress to invest in passenger rail, transit infrastructure

Unions and environmental groups called on Congress to provide more funds for passenger rail and transit systems in a report released today.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center and BlueGreen Alliance released the report, “Passenger Rail & Transit Rail Manufacturing in the U.S.,” which examined the impact and opportunities the passenger rail and transit industry presents to the national economy.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said at the Washington, D.C., release that there are a variety of opportunities for Congress to invest in long-term passenger rail and transit infrastructure.

“We believe both passenger rail and transit should be included in a robust way in the transportation reauthorization bill and how funding is allocated,” he said. “We’re not against highways and bridges, but we want to make sure passenger rail and transit is a full, robust part of how the transportation reauthorization bill comes out.”

Some members of Congress have fretted over funding for a long-term bill, but Learner suggested there are ways to pay for infrastructure needs, including raising the gas tax.

“The gas tax has attracted some support and some favorable nods on both sides of the aisle, but also some opposition, particularly coming from the Republican House members,” said Learner.

Jennifer Narrod, the shop chairwoman for the IUE-CWA Local 81323 and a worker at Alstom Signaling Inc. in Rochester, N.Y., said a downsizing of manufacturing at her plant in recent years not only has hurt workers, but also has affected small businesses throughout the community. Narrod said long-term investments in the rail industry would be beneficial to Rochester and small towns across the country.

Narrod said her company, which produces signaling and operating systems for rail cars, manufactures products for larger cities and noted that Rochester doesn’t have a passenger rail system. Along with the report, Narrod said small-town companies have a significant impact on the rail industry and are important to the economy.

The report found more than 750 companies in 39 states that manufacture components for passenger rail and transit rail. It homed in on a set of Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states and found 540 companies making subcomponents of materials, track and infrastructure products, as well as providing repairs for the industry.

Investing in passenger rail and transit infrastructure could further boost manufacturing in those states and expand production to others, the report found.

“We need leadership from Congress to ensure long-term, sustainable funding for transportation, and from leaders at every level to ensure that as we build and operate the clean energy and transportation infrastructure and technology of the future, we also rebuild good family-supporting jobs and prosperous communities,” said Kimberly Glas, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of unions and environmental groups.

Congress has until May to find a funding solution for transportation infrastructure.

The report’s authors said short-term funding bills hamper hiring and fail to give investors and companies confidence to expand plants. Both Glas and Learner said a long-term infrastructure investment would provide these companies with certainty for the future.

Although there are a few months until the deadline, Glas said she and others would have “boots on the ground” at the Capitol and in congressional districts that are affected by infrastructure funding.

“Congress can and should come together and get something done here, and get it done in way that’s robust for creating jobs, growing our economy, investing in passenger rail and transit rail that helps our environment, helps mobility, reduces congestion and is good for jobs,” said Learner. “It’s up to Congress now to get that done.”

Mass Transit Magazine: New Report Showcases America’s Rail, Transit Manufacturing Opportunity

The BlueGreen Alliance and the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) on Jan. 30 released a groundbreaking new report illustrating the breadth of the U.S. transit and passenger rail manufacturing footprint, showing businesses and  jobs nationwide that are being sustained by state and federal investments in rail and transit. The report — Passenger Rail and Transit Rail Manufacturing in the U.S. — found more than 750 companies in at least 39 states that manufacture transit and passenger railcars, locomotives and their components and related materials and equipment today.

The groups said the report shows that there is a powerful opportunity to grow transit and passenger rail manufacturing nationwide, but argued that success depends on leadership from Congress to make the long-term investments in rail and transit that are key to sustaining a strong and globally competitive industry.

“This report underscores that investing in the transportation systems we need for a strong, prosperous economy, is also critical to rebuild good manufacturing jobs all across the country—in communities both nearby and far from the transit and rail systems themselves” said Kim Glas, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance. “We need leadership from Congress to ensure long-term, sustainable funding for transportation, and from leaders at every level to ensure that as we build and operate the clean energy and transportation infrastructure and technology of the future, we also rebuild good family supporting jobs and prosperous communities.”

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Capital News Service: Long-term federal funding needed in passenger and transit rail projects

WASHINGTON–The infrastructure of passenger and transit rail hangs in the balance without long-term federal funding, according to a report released Friday by the BlueGreen Alliance and the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC).

Representatives from the BlueGreen Alliance and the ELPC cited Maryland’s Purple Line as a prime example of a transit project that would improve infrastructure and create jobs. Long-term funding from Congress for transit manufacturing will improve mobility, reduce pollution, and help the economy, according to the report presented at a news conference at the National Press Club.

Larry Hogan’s election as Maryland’s governor has presented a new challenge for the Purple Line in Maryland’s suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the Red Line in Baltimore. In his campaign, Hogan questioned the expense of the mass transit projects.

The $2.4 billion, 16-mile Purple Line would extend from New Carrollton in Prince George’s County to Bethesda in Montgomery County, and the $2.9 billion Red Line would extend 14 miles between Woodlawn in Baltimore County and Bayview in East Baltimore.

Pete Rahn, Hogan’s nominee for Maryland’s transportation secretary, told two legislative committees Wednesday that he will keep an open mind while reviewing all the information about the two rail proposals and hopes to make a recommendation to Hogan in the next 90 days.

The fate of the Purple and Red lines rests in the hands of Rahn and Hogan as well as federal funding in order to move forward.

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Chicago Tribune: SS Badger, last of coal-fired steamships in U.S. waters, gets new lease on life

The last coal-fired steamship operating in U.S. waters is undergoing a makeover to meet the terms of a deal with the Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate pollution from the disposal of coal ash.

Work on the 62-year-old SS Badger began last week in Ludington, Mich. at its operator, Lake Michigan Carferry. The 410-foot ferry, launched in 1952, travels between Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington and can carry 600 passengers and 180 vehicles.

A new conveyor system will transport ash from the Badger’s boiler to retention units being built on its car deck 180 feet away. Ash will be stored in four containment bins.

Chuck Cart, who has been chief engineer of the Badger for 19 years, said the conveyor will be in place in time for the start of sailing May 15 and will allow the Badger to operate in compliance with the EPA’s mandate to stop discharging coal ash.

The conveyor system was designed and built for the Badger by Hapman Conveyors of Kalamazoo. Installation is expected to take six weeks.

Previously, ash was transported from the boiler to an onboard retention area, mixed with Lake Michigan water and discharged in a slurry into the lake.

The ash will be sold for use in cement-making, said Chuck Leonard, vice president for navigation of Lake Michigan Carferry.

Together with an improved combustion system added last winter, the projects represent about a $2.2 million to $2.4 million investment in the Badger over the past two years, Leonard said.

According to Leonard, the Badger used 15 percent less coal during the 2014 sailing season than in 2013.

The Badger, Cart said, was built to the standards of its day, which once allowed trash and sewage of all lake vessels to be jettisoned overboard. As those standards have changed, the Badger has been modified to meet the new standards, he said.

Amtrak Adds ELPC’s Learner to Blue Ribbon Panel to Address Gridlock

Today Amtrak announced that ELPC Executive Director Howard A. Learner was named to the Chicago Gateway Initiative, a blue-ribbon panel of rail and transportation leaders. The panel is charged with identifying and evaluating infrastructure investments and operational actions that will optimize Amtrak on-time performance and improve freight rail service. The objectives are to minimize disruptions and delays and accelerate the construction of infrastructure projects. A final report on recommendations is expected by the end of May 2015.

According to an Amtrak press release: “An unprecedented level of rail congestion is causing major delays for Amtrak passengers and freight shipments, and those delays are damaging the U.S. economy … Because Chicago is the hub of the U.S. rail network, and the key gateway between East and West rail traffic, gridlock in the Chicago area is causing major delays throughout the United States. The congestion problem is caused by a combination of rising demand on the East Coast for more inter-modal freight and crude oil shipments that originate west of Chicago, under-investment in critical rail infrastructure that produces public benefits, and short-term capital projects that create additional temporary bottlenecks.”

Learn more from Amtrak.

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

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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

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

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

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

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now