Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Quinn lights the way

By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn commemorated Earth Day by signing an executive order to make state agencies more “green,” while several measures addressing environmental issues are under consideration in the legislature.

Quinn signed the executive order after announcing that several light bulbs in the Executive Mansion will be replaced with more efficient LED bulbs, and rain barrels will be placed around the building to catch water for gardening. The LED bulbs, which were donated by a company called The LED Way based in Skokie, are expected to save more than $4,500 a year.

The executive order sets goals for agencies to cut waste and energy consumption:

  1. Cut solid waste production 40 percent by 2015.
  2. Reduce paper consumption 20 percent by 2012.
  3. Decrease electricity and natural gas usage 25 percent by 2025.
  4. Lessen petroleum consumption 20 percent by 2012.

And after 2025, 60 percent of the new vehicles purchased by the state would have to be hybrid gas and electric vehicles, and 15 percent would have to solely run on electricity.

Quinn said that the order is geared at “making sure that our state government and our universities and our community colleges and our local governments really are focused on sustainability and a green way of thinking and a green way of acting.”

According to Sarah Wochos, a policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, the order puts Illinois on par with environmental goals set in many Midwestern states.

Meanwhile, several measures in the House and Senate address environmental concerns:

A bill that advanced to the Senate sponsored by Rep. Karen May, a Highland Park Democrat, would require state-owned buildings to be cleaned with only environmentally friendly products.

Another measure that passed the House would potentially make environmentally friendly products or services more competitive in the bidding process for state contracts. Agencies could consider a “green” product or service that costs up to 10 percent more than a regular product or service under this proposal by Rep. Michael Tryon, a Republican from Crystal Lake.

Perhaps the most controversial bill would create a so-called cap-and-trade program for Illinois. Companies that vent large amounts of carbon emissions would have to buy carbon credits from the state to offset their pollution. A certain amount of credits would be auctioned off to create revenue for the state.

A cap-and-trade program for carbon is being considered in the U.S. House, as well (summary here).

In Illinois, Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, is sponsoring the Senate version of a state cap-and-trade program. She said that she doesn’t think it’s time for the state to pass its own program. However, she said she hopes the bill will help to pressure Congress to take action on a nationwide program.

House sponsor Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook, agrees. But she said that if legislators approach a statewide cap-and-trade policy as a potential revenue source, it might be realistic to consider it during the current budget crisis.

Wochos said that a state as large as Illinois has a responsibility to address its impact on the environment, and it is time for lawmakers to start making some tough choices. “I can understand legislators and politicians being risk-averse, but we are at a critical crossroads,” she said. “Now is time to get real.”

Much of the legislation under consideration does not have any real teeth. Most bills include suggestions and not mandates, and Nekritz said it can be difficult, especially in a financial crisis, to get additional funding to make projects green. She is pragmatic about the possible timing for passing any strict environmental legislation. She said that the state can expect to see some major changes, such as a policy that regulates carbon emissions, “when we have the votes.”

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