Friday, August 29, 2014
Hostilities have resumed in the political war over the proposed Illiana Expressway, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and environmental groups trying to block a legal maneuver that would make it easier to build the controversial road.
The focus of the renewed battle is the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, an obscure but powerful group that acts as the gatekeeper for many federal funding programs in the Chicago area and whose blessing is needed to proceed with any mayor transportation project.
CMAP’s staff and board last year strongly objected to including the Illiana, a tollroad that would run from I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana, in its Go to 2040 priority list of approved projects. But after intense lobbing from aides to Gov. Pat Quinn, CMAP’s policy committee backed the proposal in October.
That decision promptly was challenged in by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, who contends that, legally, CMAP’s board and not its policy committee has the binding say. But pending before the CMAP board now — and scheduled to come up at its October meeting — is a periodic update of the Go to 2040 plan that now includes the Illiana.
ELPC’s Howard Learner considers that a back door effort to block his law suit and make the policy committee superior to the board. Ms. Preckwinkle doesn’t think much of the tactic either.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Environmentalists, oil and gas developers and anti-fracking groups are anxiously awaiting Friday’s unveiling of regulations for fracking operations in Illinois.
Once approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, possibly as early as September, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations can apply to drill in the state.
The latest rules are expected to address about 30,000 comments made on the first draft, which was submitted nearly a year ago. Some people sought to ban fracking — it involves injecting fluids and chemicals at high volumes to crack open shale rock and unleash oil and natural gas — and others pointed out loopholes in the proposed regulations.
Environmentalists and oil drillers will be looking to see if the final draft has addressed their concerns.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Please see ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner’s new Comment in the Environmental Law Reporter (September 2014): “Emerging Clarity in Climate Change Law: EPA Empowered and State Common Law Remedies Enabled” (pdf). This legal analysis addresses: (1) How the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions in EPA v. EME Homer City and UARG v. EPA fill out the climate change law framework of Mass. v. EPA and AEP v. Connecticut; and (2) The recent Third Circuit decision and the Iowa Supreme Court decision that allow state common law actions to address carbon and other air pollutants. Here’s a brief summary of Howard’s Comment on this timely and important set of issues:
The emerging law of climate change is becoming clearer. The U.S. Supreme Court’s series of climate change and other Clean Air Act decisions authorize the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency to advance its standards-setting process, and provide general deference to EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act and other statutory programs. The Court is sending a clear message to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which reviews most of EPA’s final standards, and to other courts, to restrain judicial activism. Likewise, federal and state courts are opening the door for plaintiffs to assert state common law tort remedies.
The Court’s majority has made clear its solid support for the landmark Massachusetts v. EPA decision authorizing EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. The partisan political attacks and the novel theories of the cottage industry of appellate attorneys representing certain polluting industries have not deterred the Court. The Court’s recent decisions in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, which strongly, although not entirely, uphold EPA’s CAA implementation discretion, should reduce confusion and bring much-needed increased certainty for both state policymakers and energy industry executives to move forward in making business decisions. At the same time, both federal and state courts are beginning to fill in the blanks left by the Court in its American Electric Power v. Connecticut decision, which held that the Clean Air Act displaces federal common law injunction actions brought by states and other plaintiffs seeking to limit carbon dioxide pollution from coal plants, by preserving citizens’ traditional rights under state common law.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Electric rates for homeowners and other residential customers of We Energies could go up nearly 5% in January, depending on how state regulators decide the utility’s 2015-’16 rate case this fall.
While the overall rate increase is proposed to be just under 2% — staying below the projected inflation rate — residential customers would see rate increases exceeding the projected inflation rate next year.
We Energies customers pay the second-highest electric rates in the state, according to the state Public Service Commission. Since 2005, We Energies’ residential bills have increased 51%, while inflation is up 22%.
The Milwaukee power company’s rate request comes as its parent company, Wisconsin Energy Corp., is seeking approval for a $9.1 billion acquisition of Chicago-based natural gas and electric utility Integrys Energy Group.
In Illinois, Integrys and Wisconsin Energy have promised to keep rates unchanged for two years — provided the Illinois Commerce Commission allows rates to increase in early 2015, before the acquisition closes.
But an Illinois customer group wants natural gas charges in the Chicago area frozen at current levels rather than after another increase takes effect. In Wisconsin, customer groups haven’t made a formal request for concessions related to the acquisition, but have said regulators should ensure customers benefit from the deal.
In a bill message appearing in the mailboxes of 1.1 million customers across the state, We Energies explains its rationale for the rate increase and the changes it’s proposing in how customers are charged.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
A closely watched battle over utility policy in Wisconsin could determine the fate of solar development throughout the region, advocates say.
The dispute is over three major rate cases recently filed by We Energies,Madison Gas & Electric andWisconsin Public Service Corporation. The three utilities cover much of the eastern half of the state as well as its largest cities.
If the state Public Service Commission (PSC) approves the cases, solar experts say there will be a massive chill over solar development in these utilities’ service territories. And they expect other utilities in Wisconsin and beyond will file similar requests.
All three cases would significantly restructure the way residential and business customers are charged for electricity, so that all customers pay a higher fixed amount each month while the variable charges based on electricity use are reduced.
This creates an inherent disincentive to reduce energy use – whether through installing solar panels or increasing energy efficiency. RENEW Wisconsin program and policy director Michael Vickerman described it as a “reverse Robin Hood” move that shifts the burden of paying for electricity from large energy consumers to small consumers.
Monday, August 18, 2014
On the shores of Lake Erie, the immediate sense of crisis has passed. Following the toxic algae that bloomed in the lake earlier this month, forcing residents of Toledo, Ohio to rely on bottled water for their drinking supply, authorities now offer assurances that the tap water is safe.
But a gnawing fear remains in communities along the lake. The algal bloom has intensified concerns about its apparent source — pollution washing off surrounding fields in the form of fertilizer and manure. Not without reason, people worry that more outbreaks could emerge at any time.
“I’m still drinking bottled water,” said Jessica Morelli, a nursing mother who skipped showers the weekend of the tap water shutdown, worrying she’d get a skin infection that she could potentially pass on to her 8-month-old daughter. “People are still kind of leery. If it could make you so sick one day, how could it be normal so quickly again?”
Around the nation, similar worries have become a part of everyday life as communities grapple with growing volumes of pollution spilling into waterways from livestock and farming operations. Though talk of industrial pollution may summon images of belching smokestacks, the agricultural expanses producing meat, dairy, grains and vegetables are today so enormous that they can generate quantities of water pollution rivaling cities. Yet the rules governing this pollution still generally treat farming as something other than an industry.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate agricultural runoff, leaving such effluent to be governed by local agencies whose philosophies and standards vary from state to state. State rules and enforcement are often lax, environmental policy experts assert, in part because pushback from agricultural lobbying interests, but also because of limited funding and staffing at regulatory agencies.
“The states to date have had a very ineffective response on what to do about this,” Brad Klein, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Centerin Chicago, told International Business Times. “We’re hoping that situations like Toledo provide a wake-up call that this could happen anywhere, and that it’s happening with increasing frequency.”
Monday, August 18, 2014
CHICAGO – NRG Energy Inc. announced Thursday its plans to close one Illinois coal-fired generating unit in Romeoville and convert a power facility in Joliet to natural gas, a move the company said would reduce carbon dioxide emissions but also eliminate 250 jobs during the next two years.
Environmental groups called it an important step toward greener energy, but one that doesn’t go far enough to reduce the heat-trapping pollutants blamed for global warming.
The New Jersey-based energy company said it will close Will County Unit 3, one of its two coal-fired units in Romeoville, next April. The company plans to convert its Joliet facility to natural gas by mid-2016. The company also said it would install emissions control technology at its plants in Pekin and Waukegan.
The company took over the four Illinois facilities in April when it acquired in a $2.65 billion deal Edison Mission Energy, which had filed for bankruptcy.
The changes represent a $567 million investment for NRG that will reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by at least 16 million tons annually by 2020, the company said. The reductions would equal more than half of Illinois’ carbon dioxide reduction goal called for by President Barack Obama’s proposed carbon pollution standards, the company said.
NRG plans to offer voluntary severance packages to workers, company spokesman Dave Gaier said. “These aren’t necessarily layoffs,” Gaier said.
Environmental groups gave the announcement a cautious nod, but called on the company to do more to phase out coal and invest in alternative energy.
“This is a step in the transition to much a cleaner energy economy in Illinois,” said Howard Learner, executive director of Environmental Law and Policy Center. Investment in wind and solar power will create jobs, Learner said.
The Sierra Club released a statement calling attention to NRG’s continued coal burning in Waukegan, Pekin and the second unit in Romeoville.
“For a company that describes itself as a trailblazing power producer, we were hoping and expecting a lot more vision, innovation and forward-thinking in NRG’s approach to its Illinois operations,” said Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
Almost 41 percent of Illinois’ power came from coal-fired power plants in 2012, according to federal statistics.
Monday, August 18, 2014
Two years ago, Dorian Breuer waited six months to get permits to install solar panels on his home on the south side of Chicago.
At that same time, Breuer was in the heat of the battle to close Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants, as a leader of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.
Today the coal plants are closed and Breuer, along with Jack Ailey, another leader in the campaign, run one of the four companies chosen to implement the city’s Solar Chicago program offering discounted solar installations through a bulk buy.
The program is administered by the organization Vote Solar, in partnership with theEnvironmental Law and Policy Center and World Wildlife Fund. It is meant to jumpstart residential rooftop solar energy in Chicago, and if projections go as planned it will mean a raft of new orders for Ailey Solar, founded by Breuer and Ailey two years ago.
Meanwhile, the long wait for a solar permit that Breuer endured has been cut to one day thanks to the city’s Solar Express program launched in October. Between these and other initiatives and developments, Chicago officials and clean energy boosters say things are looking bright for solar in Chicago.
Monday, August 11, 2014
Standing deep in prairie brightly colored by yellow cornflower, sweet black-eyed Susans and Canada tick trefoil, Gary Sullivan pulled up a small mystery, the bluejoint leafhopper.
‘‘No one knows how it turned up here,’’ said Sullivan, senior restoration biologist for The Wetlands Initiative, one group helping with restorations at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
The appearance of the bluejoint leafhopper is one of hundreds of big and small mysteries popping up at the 20,000-acre U.S. Forest Service site near Wilmington.
A bigger mystery will come in a few months when bison are restored at Midewin in an area that should be open to the public by spring.
So there was no mystery why a collection of heavy hitters in conservation gathered Monday to give an update in the legal battles against the proposed Illiana Tollway.
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
The drinking-water crisis in one of Ohio’s largest cities is drawing attention to a new requirement for farmers in the state: a license to fertilize.
The certification is the biggest step Ohio has taken to control nutrient runoff from farms, seen as a key cause of algae blooms in Lake Erie. Those blooms are blamed for a two-day “do-not-drink” advisory in Toledo and its suburbs that ended Monday.
Regulators say the new licenses that become mandatory in 2017 will require farmers to take a one-day class. They say it will help cut fertilizer use by showing farmers how they can apply less nutrients without negatively affecting their crop yields. The law also allows regulators to revoke such certifications if problems are found on a farm.
State officials and farm leaders point to the certification as a sign of the growing steps Ohio is taking to tackle the blooms, with such efforts expected to increase in the years ahead. But environmentalists argue much more aggressive steps are needed to prevent repeat occurrences of what happened in Toledo.
“This isn’t a matter of farmers fine-tuning what they’re doing,” said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest advocacy group. “This requires a substantial rethinking of how nitrogen and phosphorus is used in the agriculture sector.”