|June 26, 2019|
Trump attempts to prop up the struggling coal industry
|As President Donald Trump attempts to prop up the nation's dwindling coal industry, Illinois is taking another step away from its dirtiest source of electricity.|
Under a deal brokered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker's administration, the Texas-based owner of eight coal-fired power plants in central and southern Illinois agreed last week to shutter 40% of its fleet by the end of the year.
Vistra Energy will be allowed to choose which units it retires and might scrap some of its cleaner power plants instead of the dirtiest. But the company's agreement with the state's new Democratic governor is far more stringent than industry-friendly rules proposed two years ago by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Rauner's plan would have allowed Vistra to dramatically increase its emissions of lung-damaging and climate-changing pollution. Instead, the state-imposed limits brokered by the Pritzker administration are slightly higher than the fleet's emissions during the past five years and will become more restrictive every time a coal plant closes for good.
The agreement is another sign that Illinois, like many other states, isn't turning back from a steady shift to cleaner sources of electricity, despite Trump's move last week to gut national climate pollution standards adopted by former President Barack Obama.
It appears the only question is whether Trump's latest rollback of environmental regulations will enable some coal-fired power plants to keep running longer than expected, slowing the transition to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy that are quickly becoming less expensive than coal.
"The market is changing and coal increasingly can't compete," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, who likened Trump's efforts to bail out the industry to "subsidizing landline telephones while the cellular market grows bigger and bigger."
Under the Trump rewrite of Obama's Clean Power Plan, states can exempt certain coal plants from doing anything to reduce pollution that is steadily changing the planet's climate. It is one of several attempts by the Trump administration to protect the coal and oil industries by scrapping clean air and water regulations enacted during Obama's eight years in office.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler argued that the Trump climate plan isn't a rollback because the Obama-era regulations never fully took effect. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for Murray Energy Corp., an Ohio-based coal company that has spearheaded many of the attacks on environmental regulations.
But an EPA analysis acknowledges that when compared with the Obama rules, more Americans will end up dying early from exposure to pollution emitted by coal plants under the Trump version.
Burning fossil fuels also is the main human source of heat-trapping pollution responsible for climate change. The EPA estimates that carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants will decline only 0.5% by 2035 under the Trump plan.
Put another way, the Trump administration's projected decline of 10 million tons of carbon dioxide during the next 15 years is less than what one coal plant --- the Prairie State Generating Station in southern Illinois --- emits every year.
Administration officials "made painfully clear that they are incapable of rising to the challenge and tackling this crisis," said Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA under Obama. "They have shown a callous disregard for EPA's mission, a pattern of climate science denial and an inexcusable indifference to the consequences of climate change."
Often lost in the bitter debate about Obama's regulatory agenda is that many states have been weaning themselves from coal for years, prompted by a glut of cleaner-burning, less expensive natural gas and steadily falling costs for pollution-free wind and solar energy.
Illinois is one of 18 states that have already met or exceeded the Obama-era target for a 32% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, according to a Tribune analysis of federal records. Others include Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee --- all of which once were dominated by the coal industry and its political clout.
Even Kentucky, home of pro-coal Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is close to meeting the Obama-era guidelines, the Tribune analysis found.
Natural gas now produces more electricity in the U.S. than coal, which as recently as a decade ago was responsible for more than half of the nation's energy. The shifting economics are a major reason that 290 U.S. coal plants have either closed or been scheduled for retirement during the past eight years, according to a tally by the Sierra Club, a nonprofit advocacy group that turned up the pressure on power companies with a series of Clean Air Act lawsuits.
Vistra became Illinois' largest producer of coal-fired electricity last year when it acquired eight power plants in a merger with Dynegy, another Texas-based company. Even before the deal was finalized, Vistra executives hinted they might end up scrapping the entire Illinois fleet because the aging coal plants struggle to compete in energy markets.
The plants burn coal from Wyoming instead of Illinois. But the company employs about 1,000 people in Illinois and the power plants contribute to the tax base of local communities.
Rauner attempted to overhaul state anti-pollution rules for Vistra/Dynegy, which would have made it easier for the company to keep running units that are less expensive to operate. Those units also emit more lung-damaging pollution.
The deal brokered by the Pritzker administration still replaces rate-based limits with annual caps on tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emitted by the Vistra fleet. But the new limits are more stringent than what Rauner initially proposed: 34,500 tons of sulfur dioxide compared with 55,000, and 19,000 tons of nitrogen oxide rather than 25,000.
Last year, the coal plants emitted 32,492 tons of sulfur dioxide and 17,330 tons of nitrogen dioxide, according to federal records.
Rauner's proposal, which was drafted with significant input from the company's attorneys, would have locked the less stringent limits in place even if Vistra shut down some of its coal plants. The Pritzker-led Illinois EPA dropped that provision in response to opposition from environmental groups and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul's office.
Another sign that coal is still on the way out in Illinois: Vistra is pushing legislation in Springfield that would require downstate ratepayers to subsidize the company's proposed shift to solar power on the sites of its shuttered coal plants.
"We are supporting a comprehensive transition plan that responsibly retires downstate coal capacity after facilitating substantial investments in utility-scale solar and energy storage at existing plant sites to support the local plant communities and broader Illinois clean energy goals," Meranda Cohn, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Lawmakers remain skeptical. The company's proposal failed to gain traction during the recently completed legislative session.
There still is plenty of electricity in the marketplace if the Vistra plants shut down, according to data compiled by the attorney general's office. And power generation keeps getting cleaner in Illinois without a special subsidy for an out-of-state company.