By Ted Cox | One Illinois
And stronger than ever as sponsors, activists cheer key changes, push for passage this fall
Proponents of the Clean Energy Jobs Act are pushing a series of changes to the bill as key to its possible passage this fall.
On a media teleconference Wednesday, Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter, proclaimed “a strong sense of urgency” to pass the bill in the midst of a pandemic, a nationwide call for racial justice, and “a crisis of confidence in government” in Illinois stemming from a ComEd bribery scandal.
“These extraordinary crises facing Illinois right now call for bold action this fall that puts the people of Illinois first, not utilities and polluters,” Darin said. “All of our communities, and especially our communities of color, need lower electric bills, new job opportunities, and cleaner air, and those are the goals of the Clean Energy Jobs Act.”
Darin and other activists said the long-simmering climate crisis has been brought to a head by these other crises, and amendments are being prepared to address the full range of issues.
“Utilities are supposed to serve the people, but for too long it’s been the other way around in Illinois,” Darin added. “We will finally put consumers and communities, not corporate profits, first, and end forever the era of corporations dictating energy policy by playing politics.”
Lead General Assembly sponsors Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin and Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago said revisions are being prepared to strengthen the equity issues, as polluters are often located in and around minority communities, as well as ethics issues, including refocusing the Illinois Commerce Commission to serve residents ahead of utilities. The changes also will “require immediate reopening of the rooftop and community solar programs to get solar installers back to work” in the economic slowdown stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Comprehensive energy legislation that moves Illinois to a clean energy future and away from dirty and expensive fossil fuels that have contributed to the climate crisis has never been more important,” Castro said in a statement accompanying a news release on the upcoming CEJA amendments. “The Clean Energy Jobs Act can create new, equitable job opportunities that put people back to work. It is time to put the people of Illinois and clean, affordable energy first.”
“Profits, rather than people, have dictated energy policy in Illinois for too long, at the expense of residents and small businesses,” Williams added. “Energy policy should put people and communities first. The new version of CEJA will make Illinois a national model for addressing climate change and restoring the public’s trust by requiring significant accountability, transparency, and ethics requirements for utilities.”
Darin declared the changes make CEJA “even stronger” on economic and social-equity issues, and activists from across the state agreed on Wednesday’s teleconference.
Dulce Ortiz of Clean Power Lake County said CEJA was needed in her hometown of Waukegan, “an environmental-justice community” that has had to deal for decades with a coal-powered NRG Energy electric plant. “Now more than ever we need to pass CEJA to provide immediate support for Black and Brown communities most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to put an end to toxic pollutions in our backyards, and to hold fossil-fuel interests and utilities accountable.”
Insisting, “Nobody wants to do any kind of economic development next to a coal plant,” she praised the provisions already in the bill to hold fossil-fuel corporations accountable for the damage they do.
“An incremental approach is not going to work any longer,” Ortiz added. “We need CEJA now.”
Rev. Tony Pierce of Illinois People’s Action touted how the amended bill puts “equity provisions front and center … to the communities that need it most,” including his own Peoria area. He drew parallels with the equity provisions in the state’s successful new law for recreational cannabis. But he said a statewide network of energy hubs and incubators would also spur the shift to renewable energy and put solar installers back to work.
“Illinois needs to respond boldly,” he said. “We must say no to the dirty-energy economy that sacrifices Black and Brown communities to profit and the dirty money that fuels it.”
“We know the science and we know the solutions,” said Tonyisha Harris, a youth activist on the environment and climate change. “They are spelled out in the Clean Energy Jobs Act.”
The solutions are also political, however, and supporters touted changes to the Illinois Commerce Commission that would also hold utilities accountable.
Andrew Barbeau, of the Clean Energy Jobs Coalition, said the bill would stand against utility “bailouts,” such as extra funding for Exelon’s nuclear plants in Illinois. “Exelon is a highly profitable company that shouldn’t be asking taxpayers to keep their operations going,” he said.
“This is part of the old playbook,” Darin added. “We can’t do business that way in Illinois anymore.”
Barbeau and Darin also drew attention to provisions already in the bill to remove Illinois from an energy marketplace they charged was being manipulated by the Trump administration to the benefit of fossil-fuel companies. Proponents have previously suggested it would halt what they label as an $846 million Trump rate hike.
Darin said supporters would hold Gov. Pritzker to his pledge that the next major piece of energy legislation would not be written by utilities and instead would favor Illinoisans. He said they’d push hard for passage during the General Assembly’s veto session this fall.
Harris pointed out it’s a critical issue to younger voters and those looking forward to voting in the coming years. Unless the government acts now, “young people will inherit the worst of the climate crisis,” she said. “Action on climate cannot wait.”