Illinois regulators on Monday began formal hearings on how the state should meet tougher federal limits on pollutants blamed for global warming, saying they will consult with environmentalists and industry and will consider working other states on regional solutions.
The Illinois Commerce Commission hearing in Chicago and Springfield was the first step toward submitting a required plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlining how the state will contribute to a sweeping Obama administration proposal to curb carbon dioxide emitted by the nation's power plants by 30 percent by 2030. Each state was given a customized goal -- Illinois' is a 33 percent reduction from its 2012 levels -- and the flexibility to decide how to reach that target.
State and environmental officials say Illinois is in a good position because it already relies on a mix of energy sources. Some of Illinois' coal-fired power plants, which emit most of the heat-trapping pollutant, have either closed, added pollution-control equipment or switched to cleaner-burning natural gas. The state also has 11 nuclear reactors, which don't emit carbon dioxide, and renewable energy such as wind and solar is increasingly being added to the power grid.
Environmentalists said the state also must focus on energy efficiency efforts to reduce the amount of electricity used by industry and residents.
Three sessions will help determine how to "find a compliance pathway that makes the most sense for Illinois," ICC Chairman Doug Scott said. Others will be held in September and October.
Even so, the issue is fraught with controversy, as different energy sectors vie to remain relevant or expand their footprint. Almost 49 percent of Illinois' power came from nuclear plants and 41 percent came from coal-fired plants in 2012. Renewable energy and natural gas supplied the rest.
The coal industry has warned that the new rules could force power plants to close, costing jobs and potentially hurting the power supply. The nuclear industry stands to gain from the new limits because it doesn't emit carbon dioxide. And environmentalists hope renewable energy will become even more important, including the development of solar power in Illinois.
Environmentalists have 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.
"The issues are controversial and complex ... but the first step is understanding" the proposed rule, said Jim Ross, manager of the state EPA's air pollution control division.
The federal rule is expected to be finalized next year and is a key part 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.