When Rahm Emanuel became mayor, the city of Chicago was making lists of top green cities in America. During the election he pledged support to a community movement aimed at closing the polluting Fisk & Crawford coal plants. But after taking office, Emanuel significantly increased Chicago's use of fossil fuels by negotiating an energy aggregation deal that takes 95% of its power from natural gas.
Residents scored a victory for healthy communities when a grassroots movement forced closure of the Fisk & Crawford plants. Just as important is how we replace deadly coal power. After Chicago resolved a local environmental justice problem, Emanuel created a new one by switching to a power source that harms people in more distant, rural communities.
Rahm's fracking aggregation contract prompted expansion of the Marcus Hook natural gas plant in Pennsylvania. The plant is served by a new pipeline transporting natural gas from the Marcellus shale where thousands of fracking wells are causing a social and environmental crisis.
Internationally recognized biologist Sandra Steingraber is an Illinois native who co-founded New Yorkers Against Fracking. She sent a powerful response when I asked her why Chicagoans should care about dirty energy aggregation.
I grew up Illinois coal country, just downwind from a massive, coal-burning power plant that sent all its power north to Chicago. When I was in high school, in the 1970s, that plant was the biggest polluter in the state, and everyone in my home town of Pekin all suffered from breathing its emissions. My 84-year-old mom, a life-long non-smoker, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. And because that coal, when it burned, sent mercury raining down on our river, the local fish became too poisoned to eat.
Unfortunately, Chicago residents have been sold a bill of goods by officials who misrepresented a switch from coal to natural gas as 'clean' energy. Natural gas, predominately extracted by fracking, is anything but clean, and once again, people far from Chicagoland will suffer so that Chicagoans can turn on the lights. This time, it's Pennsylvania children living in the shale fields, rather than downstate Illinois kids living by the strip mines, whose health will be sacrificed. So, how is that progress?
For the climate, extraction by fracking results in tremendous leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more damaging for the climate than carbon dioxide over 20 years. For people, those living near fracking suffer a range of health ailments including respiratory illnesses, birth defects, and the threat of contaminated water and earthquakes. Chicagoans deserve better than false representations of natural gas as a clean power source; they need true leadership that boldly moves to renewable energy.
Emanuel called aggregation a “clean energy” victory because it doesn't include coal. The city's claim of reducing pollutants that cause climate change depends on two questionable assumptions. First, they compared the new energy supply to a single quarter when Exelon bought more coal power on the market than it often does. Second, they failed to acknowledge the release of methane during the fracking and transportation of natural gas.
The contract also includes a 5% slice of wind power. That amount slowly increases at the minimum rate set by the Illinois renewable portfolio standard.
Other Illinois towns went far beyond Emanuel's 5% wind gesture. Ninety-one communities chose 100% renewable energy, including the city of Evanston, plus downstate towns like Peoria, Decatur, Normal, Carbondale, and even Coal City. Springfield's public utility has contracted with two wind farms for nearly ten years to provide 20% capacity of their customer energy use. Chicago went from being a national clean energy leader to a statewide slacker compared to more conservative Illinois towns.
Some residents, like Rising Tide Chicago member Angela Viands, are finding clean alternatives. “After looking at where the power comes from, my household opted out of aggregation and found a renewable energy supplier. Rahm pledged to be a clean energy champion during the election four years ago but he didn't live up to his promise as using fracked gas is anything but clean.”
Illinois Sierra Club Director Jack Darin didn't specifically mention aggregation at Chicago's climate action rally last September but he made an apt comment. “How we act on climate is just as important as doing it. You'll hear some billionaires and corporations say that acting on climate means more fossil fuels. That fracturing the earth is somehow part of saving the earth. That's crazy and in Illinois we say no to that.”
On his most important decision about Chicago's energy future, Rahm went with the crazy option of fracking more fossil fuels.