Howard Learner Op-Ed SunTimes – Scorecard For a Greener Chicago

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

BY Howard A. Learner

April 22, 2014

Given that Tuesday was Earth Day, let’s assess how Chicago has progressed on becoming a “green city” and Illinois as a “green state” while recognizing some key challenges moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false. Let’s be proud of what we’ve accomplished and candid about some important environmental problems requiring solutions.

Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,568 megawatts today. A decade ago, who believed that Illinois would become fourth in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would now have 13 major wind power corporate headquarters?

Challenge: What will it take to get Illinois policymakers to finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard — which helps drive wind power development — to make it work well to advance Chicago’s and Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market?

Solar Energy can be our next boom. Chicago has been advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Meanwhile, solar panel efficiencies are steadily improving — think smart phones, digital cameras and computer speeds — and becoming economically competitive. Solar energy is truly a disruptive technology and when combined with battery technology improvements can be a “killer app” for residential rooftops, industrial buildings’ spacious flat roofs and conversions of “brownfields to brightfields” in Chicago.

Challenge: Can Argonne National Labs’ engineers and scientists achieve their goal of batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost in five years? That’s a game changer.

Energy Efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Chicago’s local economy. Commonwealth Edison forecasts that electricity demand declines (-0.2 percent) while the Chicago regional economy grows (2.3 percent) in 2014. Chicago’s economy is growing while electricity use is declining through more energy efficient appliances, cooling and heating equipment, lighting, pumps and motors and other technologies.

Challenge: Let’s make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits.

Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region’s global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy. The Obama administration’s investment of $1.6 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off. Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities and restoring wetlands and habitat.

Challenge: Let’s better protect the Great Lakes from threats and perils of oil refinery spills, oil pipeline leaks, coal ash dumping from coal plants and the S.S. Badger, nuclear plants, marine terminals and other facilities on the shoreline. We cannot afford a BP Gulf of Mexico-type disaster in Lake Michigan.

Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting 14 major metropolitan areas and the mid-sized cities in-between. Amtrak is achieving record-high ridership between Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis. New railcars being assembled in Rochelle, Ill., will soon run on Midwest tracks. Modern higher-speed passenger rail development will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create jobs and spur regional economic growth.

Challenge: Modernizing Union Station so that it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with the CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development. Let’s accelerate high-speed rail development here.

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Howard Learner in The Des Moines Register – An Earth Day Scorecard for a Greener Iowa

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On this Earth Day, let’s celebrate how Iowa is becoming a greener state in important ways while recognizing key challenges moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false.

Let’s be proud of what Iowa has accomplished and candid about some environmental problems requiring solutions.

Wind Energy: Iowa is a national leader in wind power development with 5,177 megawatts of installed generating capacity today and more coming soon. Iowa ranks second in the nation for wind power manufacturing and installation jobs. Clean wind energy is powering the growth of new Facebook, Google and Microsoft data centers in Iowa.

• Challenge: The stop-and-start federal production tax credit for wind power must be extended. Gov. Branstad, Sens. Grassley and Harkin and Reps. Braley, Latham, Loebsack and King are all strong supporters. They must help persuade congressional Republican leadership to withdraw their opposition.

Energy Efficiency: Energy efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Iowa’s economy. Iowa is transitioning to modern LED streetlights that save money and energy. The Environmental Law & Policy Center recently worked to improve MidAmerican Energy’s and Interstate Power & Light’s energy efficiency plans, which are estimated to save 2.1 million megawatt-hours and reduce carbon pollution by 1.54 million metric tons over five years.

• Challenge: There is still much untapped energy efficiency beyond what the utilities’ plans will capture. Let’s make sure that homes and businesses in all Iowa communities gain energy efficiency benefits.

Solar Energy: Solar energy is Iowa’s next clean energy opportunity, building on the successful wind power experience. Iowa’s solar tax credit incentive program is working, and solar panel prices are dropping while technologies improve. Iowa’s solar incentives of $2.84 million have leveraged 622 solar projects with a total $24 million investment.

• Challenge: The utilities’ anti-competitive attempts to create regulatory barriers to solar development should be rejected by the Iowa Supreme Court. The Iowa Utilities Board should adopt policies designed to support distributed solar development on building rooftops. People and businesses who arrange to install solar panels on their rooftops providing clean, independent energy supplies shouldn’t be penalized. The solar tax cap should be raised from $1.5 million to $4.5 million annually to accelerate progress.

Cleaning up Iowa’s lakes and rivers: Iowa’s lakes provide recreational enjoyment for many people, and clean lakes are economic assets helping Iowa businesses recruit and retain employees. The 11.9 million lake visits each year generate $1.2 billion in spending and more than 14,000 jobs. Cleaning up Iowa’s rivers and lakes, however, has a long way to go. Nutrient pollution from agricultural chemical run-off requires costly water treatment to protect Des Moines residents’ drinking water supplies and causes algae blooms in Iowa’s lakes and rivers that hamper recreation and harm aquatic life. The Iowa nutrient reduction strategy is bringing people together to talk about improving water quality and steps to address nutrient pollution.

• Challenges: Cleaning up Iowa’s rivers and lakes requires reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from heavy agricultural chemical use and runoff. Actions do speak louder than words for seriously improving water quality.

It’s time for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to adopt strong water quality standards to achieve cleaner water. In 2008, a panel of scientists provided recommendations to the DNR on better protecting Iowa’s swimming lakes. Progress has stalled. Let’s advance solutions now.

Higher-speed rail: The growing Midwest high-speed rail network will connect Iowans to Chicago, Omaha and the mid-sized cities in between. Amtrak is achieving record-high ridership levels between Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis. Modern passenger rail can work for Iowa by improving mobility, reducing pollution, creating jobs and spurring regional economic growth.

• Challenge: Iowa should invest in modernizing and expanding passenger rail service. It’s time for Iowa policymakers to join with Iowa’s business leaders and get on board.

Clean water, clean air, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Iowans. This Earth Day, let’s be proud of Iowa’s accomplishments and progress, and let’s seize opportunities to advance cleaner, greener and safer communities for all.

Read the story in the Register

Chicago Tribune: Environmental Groups File Suit to Stop $1.3B Illiana Toll Road Proposal

Friday, April 18, 2014

By Richard Wronski

Tribune reporter

Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit today to block the proposed $1.3 billion Illiana toll road that would serve primarily as a trucking corridor linking interstates in Illinois and Indiana.

The lawsuit challenges the Illinois Department of Transportation’s authority to build the toll road running through Will County, saying the Illiana’s approval violated state law.

The Illiana would be state’s first major public-private partnership, in which private investors would build and operate the highway.

The lawsuit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, representing the Sierra Club and Openlands.

“IDOT has been trying to use its political clout to circumvent the process and force the Illiana toll road to jump ahead of … higher priority projects,” said Howard Learner, the center’s executive director.

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Press Release: Lawsuit Challenges Validity of Illiana Tollway Authorization

Thursday, April 17, 2014


April 17, 2014


Manny Gonzales, ELPC

(312) 795-3730



Cindy Skrukrud, Sierra Club

(312) 251-1680 x 110



Brandon Hayes, Openlands

(312) 863-6260


News Advisory: Lawsuit Challenges Validity of Illiana Tollway Authorization

Groups Challenge IDOT’s Move to Override Smart Regional Planning

CHICAGO (April 17, 2014) – Today the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), representing the Sierra Club and Openlands, filed a lawsuit in the Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County to halt the proposed Illiana Tollway.  The lawsuit contends that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has no authority to continue developing the proposed 47-mile tollroad.

The lawsuit against IDOT, the Board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and the MPO Policy Committee alleges that an October 2013 vote by the MPO Policy Committee to approve amending the GO TO 2040 Plan to include the proposed Illiana Tollway as a financially constrained project was in fact illegal.  State law required that the inclusion of the Illiana Tollway first be approved by the CMAP Board—which rejected the amendment in a 10-4 vote just one week earlier.

The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring that the proposed Illiana Tollway hasn’t received the necessary approval to proceed.

“The Illinois Department of Transportation is violating Illinois law by spending public funds on the proposed Illiana Tollway, which the Chicago Metropolitan Area for Planning voted to reject for the regional transportation plan,” said Howard A. Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and one of the Plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Illinois state law requires CMAP’s approval, which IDOT cannot legally circumvent. The Plaintiffs are requesting that the state court declare the agencies’ actions to be unlawful and enjoin IDOT from spending any public funds on the proposed Illiana Tollway.”

The CMAP Board, with representatives of Chicago and seven suburban counties, was following its staff report’s recommendation, which found that the Illiana Tollway wasn’t needed and would expose the region to financial risk and environmental devastation without any appreciable transportation benefits.

“CMAP’s GO TO 2040 Plan is the result of years of work by thousands of citizens and leaders, and it is a good plan for our region,” said Jack Darin, Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter.  “When the CMAP Board voted to reject the Illiana, they did so in the best interests of our region.  When IDOT’s MPO Policy Committee reversed that finding, they undermined the GO TO 2040 Plan and they broke the law.  When we make plans for the good of the region we need to stick by them, not allow politics to override them like IDOT did in the case of the Illiana.”

“The vote by the MPO Policy Committee—in defiance of the CMAP Board—was a politically-motivated vote for bad planning that destroys the integrity of the GO TO 2040 Plan,” said Openlands President & CEO Jerry Adelmann. “In addition to destroying thousands of acres of productive agricultural land and severing rural communities, the proposed Illiana Tollway would denigrate state and federally protected natural areas—including Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie—with noise, exhaust, and light.”

CMAP’s staff also found that the proposed Illiana Tollway could require a public subsidy of up to $1.1 billion. IDOT’s own studies show that fewer than 20,000 vehicles would use the Illiana per day up to as late as 2040. CMAP was well prepared to evaluate the project and spent years crafting a broad GO TO 2040 Plan, a framework for future transportation spending in the region.

Yet, the MPO Policy Committee, chaired by IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, approved the project by an 11 to 8 margin, potentially making Illinois taxpayers responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in costs not covered by the project’s hoped-for private financing.

ELPC also represents Openlands and Sierra Club in another pending lawsuit in federal court.  That lawsuit, filed in July 2013, alleges that the “Tier 1” environmental impact study for the Illiana Tollway was legally inadequate, in part because the study was based on population and employment forecasts that differed significantly from CMAP’s.  Plaintiffs are filing a motion for summary judgment tomorrow, April 18.




Crains Chicago: Environmental Groups Sue To Block Illiana Expressway

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Environmental groups sue to block Illiana Expressway

April 17, 2014

Leading Chicago environmental groups Thursday sued to block the proposed Illiana Expressway, saying action on the proposed road at the southern edge of the Chicago metropolitan area has proceeded in violation of the law.

In an complaint filed on behalf of the Sierra Club and Openlands in Cook Count Circuit Court, the Environmental Law & Policy Center alleges that expressway proposal has not received the required blessing of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which acts as the gatekeeper for federal funds here.

The road was approved by the CMAP’s Policy Committee in a decision that the law center bitterly fought. However, the group says the rejection by a 10-4 vote of the road a week earlier by CMAP’s board is more important legally, according to the complaint. (You can read the whole thing below.)

“The Illinois Department of Transportation is violating Illinois law by spending public funds,” Howard Learner, president of the Chicago-based center, said in a statement. “Illinois state law requires CMAP’s approval, which IDOT cannot legally circumvent.”

Continue Reading on Crain’s Chicago Business 

Chicago Tribune: Illinois could be first state to ban microbeads

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The tiny plastic particles found in many facial cleansers and soaps promise a gentle scrubbing and luxuriously smooth skin.

But those little beads of grit are also piling up in waterways, where they can suck up toxins and harm wildlife, environmentalists say. Because of those concerns, Illinois is one of several states considering legislation to force manufacturers to drop products that use the particles, called microbeads.

A measure advancing through the General Assembly in Springfield this spring would phase out the sale of microbeads by the end of 2018. Major soap manufacturers, some of which already have plans to stop using microbeads, support the legislation. An environmental group working to reduce plastic pollution says, however, that the state’s timetable is too lax.

Continue Reading

WVON Voice of the Nation Talks Solar Energy with ELPC’s Brad Klein

Monday, April 7, 2014

Michael T. Thomas’s “GreenPreneur” show spoke with ELPC Senior Attorney Brad Klein about solar energy initiatives and challenges in the Midwest and nationally.  Listen in. 

Cap Times: Howard Learner – Wisconsin’s quiet transportation revolution

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Madison is at the forefront of the quiet revolution in car use and vehicle technologies that is fundamentally changing transportation needs, infrastructure investments and traditional financing structures. Madison is third among the nation’s 100 largest cities for declining driving miles per person (18 percent decrease), and Milwaukee is second (21 percent decrease) from 2006 to 2011, according to the WISPIRG Foundation.

As driving patterns change and gas tax revenues decline, Wisconsin should prioritize smart investments in transit and rail, which are gaining passengers, and “fix it first” when it comes to highways and bridges.

Let’s start by advancing long-delayed higher-speed passenger rail connecting Madison to Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis, and the suburbs and “exurbs” in between. Modern high-speed rail can improve mobility, create jobs, spur economic growth and opportunity, and reduce pollution. Gov. Scott Walker should reconsider his rejection of passenger rail upgrades. Those fast trains could have already been whisking people from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago.

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

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

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.

Indiana Business Journal: Learner – Vehicle-miles tax would roll Hoosiers

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Howard Learner/Indiana Business Journal

March 29, 2014

Indianapolis is striving to become an electric-vehicles center. Gas tax revenue is declining, though, as people drive less and as more fuel-efficient new cars require filling up less at the pump. That saves people money, reduces pollution and lessens America’s imports of foreign oil.

However, less driving and more fuel-efficient vehicle technologies produce less funding for needed transportation infrastructure improvements that are vital to Indiana’s economic growth, public health and safety.

Many politicians oppose raising the motor fuel taxes. So, some states, like Oregon, are looking to shift from gas taxes to vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) taxes, which charge motorists based on how many miles they travel on the roads. An onboard vehicle device, using GPS or other technology, records the distance driven, assigns it to the appropriate taxing jurisdiction, and calculates the tax amount owed.

Proposed federal legislation (House Resolution 3638) would establish a Road Usage Fee Pilot Program, namely VMT taxes. However, this approach doesn’t work well in practice in Indiana and similarly situated states with the interstate highways driven by millions of out-of-state drivers. It would also penalize and undermine Indianapolis’ leadership on electric vehicles.

First, Indiana’s interstate highways are a crossroads—that’s different from coastal Oregon. Changing to VMT taxes would mean out-of-state drivers who now pay Indiana gas taxes on fuel purchases would instead get a free ride as they travel through. Indiana drivers would be forced to pay the entire VMT tax burden.

Why would Indiana legislators want Indiana taxpayers to further subsidize highway use for out-of-state motorists?

Second, VMT taxes would effectively penalize fuel-efficient cars, which exert less impact on highways than heavy trucks and SUVs. Why should a gas-guzzling Hummer, which causes much more wear and tear on the highways, pay the same VMT tax as a lighter, fuel-sipping Chevy Volt, Ford Focus, Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius? Will heavy trucks pay their higher fair share?

The Congressional Budget Office’s March 2011 report comparing gas taxes and VMT taxes said, “Heavy trucks travel less than 10 percent of all vehicle miles, but their costs per mile are far higher than are those for passenger vehicles, and they are responsible for most pavement damage.”

CBO suggested that VMT taxes, if adopted, should be adjusted to recognize weight-per-axle in properly allocating highway wear-and-tear to the cost causers.

Third, VMT taxes would penalize new clean electric vehicles and hybrid cars that pollute much less than internal-combustion-engine and diesel cars and trucks, and thereby provide air quality, public health and other environmental quality benefits for everyone. That penalty—the VMT tax versus gas tax—is contrary to Indiana’s cleaner air goals and undermines Indianapolis’ efforts to become an electric-vehicles center.

Fourth, the current tax is simple and inexpensive to administer at the pump. The system is already in place. The VMT tax requires that fairly costly new technology be installed in vehicles, and a new administrative system be created. The costs of operating and auditing a VMT system are higher than collecting gas taxes.

If legislators are reluctant to raise gas taxes, why would the proposed VMT taxes be any more popular with the public? The gas and motor fuel taxes are both fairer and practically better suited to Indiana’s geography and needs.

For Indiana, the proposed VMT tax for cars is not the right tool to address transportation infrastructure funding challenges.