Illinois may be more famous for imprisoned governors, but as a coal state struggling with its energy future, some of our politicians have wacky things to say about fossil fuels. With the threatened start of fracking plus backlash to EPA proposing new rules on carbon emissions, you can expect more foolishness to come.
Since election season is upon us, it's a good time to review the top five politicians whose uninformed and outrageous statements make them the biggest fossil fools in Illinois this year (so far).
5. Representative Rich Brauer
Few things are more cringe-inducing in politics than an elected official supremely confidant in their display of ignorance. State Representative Rich Brauer was one of several politicians putting ignorance on display during debate on a bill to end the state's coal education program. The taxpayer funded propaganda campaign misleads school children about coal and clean energy. It includes incredulous claims that coal is clean plus a poster drawing contest that encourages children to create their own advertising slogans.
Brauer defended this government indoctrination of children by arguing that adults need educating too. "Half our energy in this country comes from coal,"Brauer claimed. He thinks his fellow legislators need to learn that Illinois coal is cheap and clean!
Brauer is embarrassingly wrong on every point. Coal hasn't provided half the nation's power in years. It's under 40 percent and falling.
Coal isn't cheap. The last two coal plants built in Illinois resulted in significant rate increases. Cities and rural co-op investors in Peabody's Prairie State coal plant were forced to raise rates up to 30 percent . An Illinois Commerce Commission study of the failed Tenaska coal gasification and carbon sequestration plant proposed in Taylorville, Illinois showed that, even after massive subsidies, it would have produced energy at costs significantly higher than renewable alternatives. Coal keeps the rates up.
And sure, coal is clean. As long as you don't count out of control pollution violations at Illinois mines, fatal mine accidents, increased rates of cardiovascular disease and asthma attacks, and water contamination from coal ash disposal ponds. As long as you ignore all of those things that make coal dangerous and deadly at every stage of production, then sure, coal is clean.
Rich Brauer is right that adults in the legislature need better education about coal...starting with him.
4. Congressman John Shimkus
John Shimkus is a lifetime misachievement award winner for saying foolish things about climate change, such as his claim that more CO2 is good for the planet because it's plant food. But what has he said for us lately?
What recently caught my attention, besides his lack of concern that his constituents live in flood prone regions of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, was his portrayal of the culture in coal country. He spoke about low-income communities where coal is the only source of jobs. He mentioned his grandfather working at mine starting at only 10 years of age. My great-grandfathers worked at Illinois and Indiana coal mines so I understand the tradition.
There are some aspects of America's culture we choose to leave behind. Slavery is one. Genocide of Native Americans is another. The history of forcing families in coal country to choose between starvation or sending children as young as 10 years old to work in a place where death is commonplace is one of those legacies best left in the past. Coal country has prouder traditions to celebrate, including organized labor's resistance to coal companies exploiting desperate communities.
Coal country is better served by leaders who help create more opportunities, not by industry boosters like Shimkus who want coal to be our last and only option.
3. Representative Brandon Phelps
State Representative Brandon Phelps hates outside energy interests influencing politics in his district. Echoing the bellyaching of southern reactionary politicians upset about "outside agitators" in the 50's, he accuses constituents in his southern Illinois district who are opposed to fracking of being "outsiders."
Of course, he doesn't mind outsiders so much when out of state energy companies are writing checks to his campaign fund. What I suspect he minds even less is the interesting way he spends their money.
Phelps collected tens of thousands in campaign contributions from the energy sector while the fracking law was being negotiated behind closed doors. Contributions in his latest report include $2,500 from Texas-based Dynegy, $5,000 from Missouri-based Foresight Energy, $1,500 from Mid American Energy Holdings Company, which is now Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway, and others. Exxon Mobil makes an annual donation as well. Clearly, Phelps takes no issue with outside energy interests, as long as they're fossil fuel polluters donating to his campaign.
He hasn't had an opponent in several election cycles but he manages to find ways to spend his campaign fund. His amended quarterly reports show thousands of dollars spent on car payments, out-of-district bar tabs, luxury hotel stays, and payments to staff even during non-election years.
His most recent quarterly report includes $2,386.88 in car payments. He spent $1,334.37 on multiple visits to Boone's Saloon, a Springfield bar popular with the legislative session crowd. $628.00 went to unspecified tickets purchased from Fox Sports in St. Louis, presumably the venue that hosts various sporting and concert events.
His report for the previous quarter includes similar car payments. Plus, three payments to American Airlines for travel totaling $1,922. A more modest $187.75 went to Boone's Saloon this time, but his totals at other Springfield hangouts include $1,809.19 at Sebastian's Hideout, a combined $342 for "food" on three different trips to Two Brother's Lounge, a divey downtown bar that doesn't serve food, and $154.00 for a meeting at J.P. Kelly's bar, which doesn't serve food either. In Chicago he dropped $1,255.59 at Centro Restaurant. While attending the NRA Shot Show he spent nearly $5,000 to stay at the Venetian Palazzo luxury hotel in Las Vegas.
I could continue with previous reporting periods that pile up similar spending. Phelps' district includes Alexander County where the per capita annual income is $14,222, the lowest in Illinois.
Phelps' support for fracking has attracted a Green Party opponent who he's trying to have removed from the ballot. I can understand why Phelps would like to avoid giving voters a choice. He might be forced to spend more of those dirty energy donations on actual campaign expenses.
2. Phil Gonet
It takes courage these days to risk your reputation as a rational, thinking human being by telling reporters you believe climate change is a giant conspiracy orchestrated by the United Nations and academics bankrolled by... somebody, in order to... umm... control the world (or something). Phil Gonet stepped up to the plate. Gonet isn't an elected official but he casts a long, dark shadow on the statehouse as President of the Illinois Coal Association.
He recently called climate change, "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the human race." During an interview on WMAY, Gonet said the inspiration for his claim is a widely discredited article by John Coleman, a former weather forecaster with no relevant scientific credentials. He and Gonet are convinced academics are perpetuating a scam in order to get rich on research dollars. Because people make the big bucks by publishing research in academic journals, not by supporting oil and coal, right?
Back on planet reality, we know the fossil fuel industry spent millions attempting to produce phony studies and confuse people about the scientific evidence for climate change driven by man-made pollution. There's documented proof revealing an actual, real world conspiracy funded by oil and coal companies to mislead the public. Any scientist in it for the money had plenty of opportunities to get funded by the Exxon and Koch gravy train. In contrast, there's no evidence to support Gonet's conspiracy theory about climate change being a scam to attain funding from unknown sources. A psychologist might call Gonet's accusation a case of projection.
1. Governor Pat Quinn
Governor Pat Quinn says the right things. He recently joined President Obama's Task Force on Climate Preparedness, saying: "I look forward to continuing to work with President Obama to keep our state and nation at the forefront of the battle to stop the damaging effects of climate change."
Why then, is he at the top of the list? Because there's nothing more foolish than recognizing the severity of the climate crisis and still enacting policies that make it worse.
Governor Quinn bragged about launching fracking in Illinois and increasing coal exports. Scientists have warned we must leave three-quarters of remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we're going to effectively combat climate change. Quinn's fracking boom will contribute to the climate crisis by spurring a boost in oil and gas extraction. Additionally, coal exports often go to nations with weaker pollution control standards than the United States. His policy of expanding fossil fuel extraction is incompatible with the goal of tackling climate change.
Quinn's administration had a golden opportunity to clean the air and move Illinois beyond coal when Dynegy requested a pollution waiver for five downstate coal plants. His pollution control board granted the waiver instead, allowing five dirty, aging coal plants to continue operating in violation of clean air standards.
Instead of pushing to end Illinois' massive coal subsidies, Quinn expanded them by signing a bill to exempt coal mining equipment from the state sales tax. These are not the actions of a "climate change champ."
Pat Quinn has plenty of soothing words for environmentalists. But for downstate extraction regions, his policies are indistinguishable from a climate science-denying Republican. People impacted by his fossil fuel rush are waiting for Quinn's actions to match his promises.