CHICAGO – Illinois should be able to meet tougher federal limits on pollutants blamed for global warming with a mixture of power sources and energy-efficiency initiatives, state officials and environmental groups said, while opponents in the state's coal-producing regions said the proposal unveiled Monday by the Obama administration could close power plants, raise electricity rates and cost jobs.
The sweeping initiative would curb carbon dioxide emitted by the nation's power plants by 30 percent by 2030, though each state has a customized goal and the flexibility to decide how to reach that target. Illinois was given a goal of cutting emissions by 33 percent, to 1,271 pounds per megawatt hour, from 2012 levels.
State and environmental officials say Illinois is in a good position because some of its coal-fired power plants — which emit most of the heat-trapping pollutant — have added pollution-control equipment or switched to cleaner-burning natural gas, it has 11 nuclear reactors, renewable energy such as wind and solar power is expanding, and there are efforts to encourage energy efficiency. The EPA also will allow states to work together on regional approaches.
"We think we are well situated to approach this rule," Illinois Commerce Commission Chairman Doug Scott told reporters last week. "We think we have a good program and will look for ways to make it better," so it's beneficial for the environment and the state's economy.
At the same time, he said, "We are mindful of where our power comes from in the state now and (will) find pathways to compliance."
Scott did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on Monday. A phone message left with an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman was not immediately returned.
Almost 49 percent of Illinois' power came from nuclear and 41 percent from coal-fired power plants in 2012, according to federal statistics. Wind energy supplied about 4 percent and natural gas just under 6 percent of power. State officials also passed a bill last week that would provide millions for the Illinois Power Agency to invest in solar power.
Illinois Coal Association President Phil Gonet called the EPA proposal "unfair," saying the new rules could force power plants too old or small to be retrofitted with modern pollution controls offline, squeezing the electricity supply and ultimately raising rates.
"Our predication is that you're going to have less energy and it's going to cost more, be harmful to our economy and hurt poor people," he said, adding that the initiative will do little unless big countries like China and India also curbed power plants pollution.
It also could blunt a coal-mining resurgence in Illinois, Gonet warned, noting that the state's production grew from 34 million tons in 2010 to 52 million last year, making it the nation's fifth-largest coal producer.
He said the coal industry will mount legal challenges to the rule "every step of the way."
The nuclear industry, on the other hand, stands to gain from the new limits because reactors don't emit carbon dioxide. Exelon Generation, which operates all of Illinois' nuclear reactors, issued a statement saying it was reviewing the draft rule and could not comment on it.
"However, we are pleased that (it) ... recognizes the critical importance of supporting the continued operation of the nation's nuclear fleet," the statement said.
Environmentalists said warnings about job losses and energy shortages are overblown, because coal-fired plants will have to develop cleaner technology to stay in business, while renewable energy will continue to create jobs.
"Some older plants that are running like old Chevy beaters may not be economical ... (but) when the nation adopts standards that require businesses to take responsibility for the cost of pollution, engineers and innovators take over," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
The rule is expected to be finalized next year, and is a centerpiece of Obama's plans to tackle climate change. Initially, Obama wanted each state to submit their plans for cutting pollution to meet the new targets by June 2016. But details of the new proposal show that states could have up to two more years if they join with other states.
Suhr reported from St. Louis.
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