As 2016 state legislative sessions gear up across the country, including in Illinois, expect new environmental regulations outlined under the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan to be a key issue debated in the nation's state houses this year.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, finalized in August, looks to slash carbon emissions from existing U.S. power plants. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
States, which are given flexibility to meet the plan's carbon pollution standards, have to submit an implementation plan or request an extension by September.
"There's a range of actions that states will be considering to address the rule, including cap and trade, carbon taxes, renewable portfolio standards, scaling up solar energy use, amongst other things," said Nick Rathod, executive director of the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a group working with state legislators to advance progressive policies across the country.
Rathod discussed the Clean Power Plan during a Thursday conference call about key policy and political trends expected in state legislatures this year.
"This plan in particular will be a big fight in states, and we think [it] will be similar to the likes of the fight around Medicaid expansion" as part of the Affordable Care Act, he added.
The Clean Power Plan is facing a legal challenge from 24 states. Illinois is among 18 states backing the Clean Power Plan in the legal battle over the new environmental regulations.
At the federal level, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a strong opponent of the Clean Power Plan.
McConnell "has asked Republicans not to move ahead with the plan and not go along with it," Rathod said. "So there's this fight that is being basically coordinated from Washington and big money interests and others to stop implementation of the plan. That has kind of set the stage for what's going to be happening in 2016."
Locally, the environmental community has been pressing lawmakers and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to support the "Illinois Clean Jobs Bill" as the state considers ways to comply with the Clean Power Plan. The legislation, first proposed last February, is designed to strengthen statewide standards around renewable energy and energy efficiency.
In the Illinois legislature, energy-related legislation took a backseat last year to the ongoing state budget stalemate. Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders remain at odds over a spending plan for the current fiscal year, which started July 1.
The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which includes a number of lawmakers, environmental groups and businesses, is optimistic about the bill's chances this year.
The coalition is "hopeful for action in 2016 on our clean energy priorities and passage of the Clean Jobs Bill, which includes a recommended compliance pathway for Illinois to hit the carbon-reduction goals established under the Clean Power Plan," said Christine Nannicelli with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in Illinois.
The Illinois Sierra Club is among the coalition members.
"We're certainly anxious for Gov. Rauner to direct the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to begin a really robust and inclusive stakeholder process throughout the state of Illinois to continue to take feedback from all different types of stakeholders" on the state's Clean Power Plan compliance, Nannicelli said.
She addressed the issue the same day the Sierra Club released a poll gauging voter attitudes on the idea of phasing out an aging coal-fired power plant in Waukegan.
At issue is the Waukegan Generating Station, which was acquired by New Jersey-based NRG Energy in April 2014 as part of its purchase of Midwest Generation's parent company Edison Mission Energy. NRG says it will keep operating the Waukegan facility as a coal-fired power plant, and emissions controls at the generating station will be improved.
Some Lake County residents and environmentalists, however, have been pushing for a long-term transition plan to retire the coal-fired power plant, located on the city's lakefront. At last month's Waukegan City Council meeting, they delivered more than 2,000 petitions urging city leaders to create a task force to develop such a transition plan.
The Sierra Club continued the group's campaign Thursday by releasing a new poll, which surveyed 300 registered Waukegan voters. Among the findings, 70 percent of respondents said they supported a transition plan to retire the Waukegan Generating Station, while 19 percent opposed the idea.
"[Waukegan Mayor Wayne] Motley and the Waukegan City Council have heard from citizens for a long time now that they're ready to start building a transition plan away from coal," Nannicelli said. "Local community leaders have knocked on hundreds of doors in the community, have talked to thousands of residents, and it's great to see that this poll really affirms the positive feedback that we've heard for many years now -- that the community is really ready to embrace a clean energy future beyond coal."
She said it is time for Motley and the city council to "put the pressure on NRG to come to the table" in an effort to achieve "a responsible transition plan away from coal in Waukegan."
Requests for comment for this story were left with NRG as well as Motley's office.
Global Strategy Group conducted the poll between December 11 and December 20. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.