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‘The clock is ticking’: Illinois clean energy deal stuck at impasse, jobs and environment at stake

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - State labor leaders announced Monday that they've reached an impasse on negotiations for a clean energy plan with environmental groups. The bill dilemma still surrounds standards for decarbonization and prevailing wage.

Little has changed for the massive energy plan since lawmakers left Springfield in June. Now, two Exelon nuclear plants will close soon. Thousands of workers in the solar industry could also lose their jobs.

Union leaders say they're no longer confident that they can reach a deal by the end of summer. They argue environmental groups are intent on "running out the clock" to close nuclear and coal plants. Members of Climate Jobs Illinois also claim the environmental groups failed to negotiate with them in good faith.

"We took input from the Clean Jobs Coalition and some of their concerns and made several proposals actually," said Pat Devaney, Secretary Treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO. "And to date, we just didn't receive a counterproposal. They relied and went back to the governor's proposal from June 15 when the Senate left Springfield without passing a bill."

The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition claims unions want full control of new clean energy jobs. They also argue Climate Jobs Illinois wants to close the door on opportunities for Black and brown contractors in the renewable energy economy.

Time to address climate change and equity

"Thousands of union workers and solar installers are about to lose their jobs, as could teachers and first responders whose salaries are paid with property taxes dependent on the local energy sector. The impact on our climate and public health will worsen," the environmental group wrote. "Black and brown communities will continue to be shut out of the clean energy economy while they disproportionately suffer the impact of pollution. Big utility companies will remain unchecked, raising rates and racking up profits while consumers foot the bill."

Although, union leaders believe the current proposal for decarbonization would shut down the state's fossil generation. That could require Illinois to import coal, bringing the same pollutant back in.

"Our proposal was a more orderly, rational decarbonization process that got rid of the dirtiest coal plants," said Devaney. "But, it made sure along the way that we weren't closing down fossil generation in Illinois and needing to import fossil generation from neighboring states."

Devaney says their proposal could accomplish the governor's goal without negative unintended consequences. However, environmentalists argue Climate Jobs Illinois wants to allow all coal and gas plants to stay open and pollute forever. Clean energy advocates stressed the cost of doing nothing is colossal.

"In the year 2021, if we're not talking about a bill that's gonna take substantive action on the climate crisis, it's just not serious. It's just not up to the scale of the problems that we're facing now," said J.C. Kibbey, a clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The clock is ticking

Kibbey understands what it's like for families living in coal communities. His family is also from Appalachia where coal was key for economic development. He watched a coal plant close while growing up in Lansing, Michigan. Kibbey noted the transition is important and the governor's plan has protections for workers and their economy.

"Coal continues to decline. There's a 2/3 decline in coal generation in Illinois in the last ten years. That's just in what the market has done. So that's already happening," Kibbey said. "We don't have any safety net or support for the workers or communities that are impacted right now. That is part of the deal that we have to get here to support those very folks that are impacted by a process that's already happening."

Still, Devaney doesn't feel there's enough.

"If we're going to be closing coal generation and displacing workers, we need to make sure we're training them to work in this new renewable energy sector," Devaney said. "That we're paying them a fair middle class wage and we're doing things to make sure that they can sustain themselves and their families."

But, environmentalists say it's time to stop pointing fingers and fighting when climate change is a threat to everyone. Kibbey says both sides should understand they need to reach a compromise quickly.

"We need legislation that is equitable and that's bold on climate," Kibbey said. "And we have a huge opportunity here, but the clock is ticking."

Remove the barriers to moving forward

Pritzker called on the General Assembly to pass his comprehensive energy bill immediately. He hopes to move Illinois towards a clean energy economy and save tens of thousands of union jobs.

"I have negotiated in good faith as pro-coal forces have shifted the goalposts throughout this process," Pritzker wrote to the labor leaders. "I indicated then, and I am reiterating now, that I stand ready and willing to sign the bill that reflected discussions in legislative working groups and included agreed upon policies that you received on June 10. If you are willing to remove the barriers to moving forward, the impasse you find yourselves at can be resolved."

However, it's still unknown when lawmakers will return to Springfield.

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Mike Miletich

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