PI Original Adam Doster Thursday July 22nd, 2010, 11:26am

How State Lawmakers Could Lead On Climate Change

While there's still hope that the U.S. Congress will pass a comprehensive climate bill, lawmakers in Illinois should not wait to take on the challenge of moving the state's energy economy into the 21st century. Here's how they can.

Back in May, environmental advocates cautiously endorsed a climate bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) that set a meaningful limit on global warming pollution. But lacking the votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recently abandoned the broad cap-and-trade proposal and may also ditch a similar program limited to utility companies. This week, progressive senators are scrambling to improve the package's underlying energy provisions, but Democratic leaders remain noncommittal about whether they will introduce that slimmed-down bill before the August recess. "It's looking increasingly likely that the Senate will not only fumble climate legislation, but even fail to move a basic package of energy reforms in response to the oil spill," Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard reported yesterday afternoon.

As the Senate sputters, the executive branch has thankfully been able to take more action to curb greenhouse emissions. Since the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a long-anticipated ruling that greenhouse gases threaten public health and the environment, they've been hard at work proposing additional rules under the Clean Air Act. That includes new automobile tailpipe standards and major coal plant regulations, which are supremely important considering how much old coal-fired power plants contribute to global warming and air pollution. It's a marked (and welcome) diversion from the Bush administration's retrograde stewardship of the environment.

But relying on the EPA for all of the nation's long-term pollution controls is problematic. For one, a Republican Congress could strip the regulatory agency's ability to, well, regulate. Indeed, Republicans in the U.S. Senate tried to do so earlier this year. There are also some legal questions about the EPA's authority, which could slow down the speed at which bureaucrats could work.

Absent congressional action, greater responsibility will inevitably fall on state legislatures to stave off environmental disaster.  Hopefully, lawmakers here in Illinois will take on the challenge of moving the state's energy economy into the 21st century.

What we've done so far

To be sure, the General Assembly has generally been forward thinking when it comes to energy policy. The state has promised to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and then to 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. A December 2009 report from Environment Illinois estimated that the restrictions will limit carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 32.7 million metric tons by 2020. That's equivalent to the annual tailpipe emissions of 6.3 million cars.

One-third of those reductions are the direct result of the state's renewable energy standard, which stipulates that 25 percent of the electricity sold in Illinois by 2025 must be generated by renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. (A bill passed in 2009 establishes a similar system for natural gas utilities.) Lawmakers have also developed clear incentives for the development of energy-efficient affordable housing and public sector building construction and implemented its own strict pollution limits on Mercury toxins that spew from the state's coal plants. (Here's our summary of Illinois' 2009 scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.)

Where there's room for improvement

Despite these reforms, there's still enormous room for innovation and growth.

Chief among them is a renewed investment in Illinois' transportation infrastructure, which is outdated, inefficient, too small, and poorly funded. The state could ramp up its natural gas "decoupling" pilot program, a policy by which utility companies are guaranteed a fixed amount of revenue each year (as determined by the Illinois Commerce Commission) and can increase profits only by cutting costs or selling less power.

Illinois could also beef up its energy standard (particularly with regards to solar power), make "smart" investments in the state's electric grid, subsidize the development of plug-in or hybrid cars, and pass a state Property Assessed Clean Energy authorization bill to help homeowners finance green improvements to their properties. (For more potential policy initiatives, be sure to page through the recommendations (PDF) issued by the Illinois Climate Change Advisory Group, chaired by Illinois EPA Director Doug Scott.)

What about regional cap-and-trade?

If cap-and-trade is dead in Washington, leaders in this region could move forward on that front, as well.

This past May, the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord Advisory Group (of which the state of Illinois is a member) released its final recommendations (PDF) for the design of a Midwestern cap-and-trade program covering six states and one Canadian province. The system would force electricity producers and industrial polluters with annual emissions of 25,000 metric tons or more to reduce greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others) to 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2050. When the cap is eventually lowered, allowances would then be funneled into "climate-related purposes:" green energy investments, subsidies to low-income consumers and some industries hit particularly hard by regulation, and worker training programs.

Ultimately, members of the accord imagine linking the Midwest program with similar systems in other regions that are already proposed or up and running. While we've previously discussed some progressive concerns about state-based cap-and-trade programs, the plan is worth revisiting if Congress fails to establish a program of its own. After all, Illinois is located in the most coal-reliant region of the country.

The obstacles in Springfield

Getting any of these changes passed into law won't be easy, given the various choke points that exist in Springfield for green legislation. For starters, Illinois doesn't exactly have a ton of money to throw around these days. While many of these changes are regulatory in nature -- and would save taxpayers considerable amounts in the long-run -- any program that requires some upfront investment is going to have to wait until the state's fiscal house is in order.

Moreover, lawmakers seem much more inclined to dump what money they have into energy sources like "clean coal" and nuclear that are more expensive and dirtier than existing alternatives. (Ironically, "carbon capture and sequestration" technology will never be economically competitive unless there is a price on carbon.) Those decisions are influenced in part by powerful Springfield interests like nuclear giant Exelon and coal industry groups that use lobbyists and campaign donations to shelve bills that might benefit competitors or cut into their profit margins.

Furthermore, if the Republicans take back the governor's mansion next year, virtually every single environmental bill is going to need the support of a veto-proof majority.  Remember: GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady doesn't even believe that global warming is caused by human activities.

There's still hope that Congress will come through with a substantial climate mitigation package. Environmental advocates will undoubtedly focus their resources at that level of government this year. But if lawmakers in Washington fail, their colleagues in Springfield need to jump in this winter and do their part. Illinois' economic and environmental future depends on it.

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