Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Climate-positive headlines greenwash Wisconsin’s fossil fuel dependency

Despite news of renewable energy projects, fossil fuel investment undermines net-zero 2050 commitment
Celia Hiorns

Late last month, Gov. Tony Evers reached a deal with funding from the U.S. Forestry Service to purchase 70,000 acres of the Pelican River Forest in northern Wisconsin. The conservation project, which protects pristine forests from future development, will now represent the largest of its kind in state history.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee remained uncooperative with Evers throughout the project, forcing Evers to seek federal funding for the purchase. Opponents voiced concerns over the lack of potential future development within the Pelican River Forest as well as a decline in tax revenues from private landowners.

Republican arguments against the conservation project are superficial at best, given the state’s record budget surplus of more than $7.1 billion and the existence of development projects in other areas of Wisconsin’s Northwoods.


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Despite a Republican chokehold in the state Legislature, federal funding allowed Evers to bypass opposition and complete the land purchase. But if a goal of state Republicans remains to block Evers’ pragmatic climate agenda, then they may see more success in the long run.

Evers signed Executive Order 38 in 2019, committing Wisconsin to a net-zero carbon emissions future by 2050. According to a report from GridLab, this goal is entirely within reach with the assumption of an economy-wide effort to electrify and decouple from the fossil fuel industry.

Nearly five years into the governor’s plan toward net-zero carbon emissions, the state continues to make remarkable progress on bringing renewable energy projects online. 

In 2023, Wisconsin added over 1,000 gigawatts of clean energy to its grid — outpacing the 1,000 gigawatts per year mark to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The state’s largest utility company, WEC Energy Group, also announced they would be phasing out their coal plants in the state by 2032 — three years ahead of schedule. Alliant Energy is not too far behind, either, with a commitment to phase out coal from its energy portfolio by 2040.

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These feats are especially impressive given the characteristic political regressiveness of the majority-Republican state government. But as tempting as it is for those with climate anxiety to latch on with hope to attention-grabbing, climate-positive headlines — like the purchase of the Pelican River Forest — doing so risks greenwashing larger problems that exist in the state’s energy infrastructure and path to a renewable future.

Closures of coal plants are certainly a cause for celebration. After all, coal is indisputably the leading cause of climate change and holds the title of “dirtiest” fossil fuel. Pollutants from coal also disproportionately impact the health of low-income and Black residents in the state.

In this sense, an immediate transition away from coal remains a top priority to hit future climate goals and to protect public health. But Wisconsin lags behind the rest of the nation in its over-reliance on energy from coal. Nearly 36% of the state’s energy comes from coal, according to estimates. The national average is less than 19%.

Wisconsin utility companies are well aware of these problems with coal as well as its waning political support, which explains their decision to move away from coal in the long term, conveniently reaping windfall profits in the process.

A transition away from coal is a welcome development for those not wishing to see runaway carbon emissions and imminent global collapse, but recent investments in new natural gas infrastructure represent another step back for long-term sustainability in Wisconsin.

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With $700 million in federal funding, utility companies plan on beginning construction of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a natural gas power plant, in Superior this spring. The project is highly contested by both environmental activists and local Indigenous communities who worry opening up another fossil fuel-burning power plant is another step back in the fight against climate change. 

Natural gas is certainly cleaner than coal. When burned, natural gas releases less atmospheric pollutants than other fossil fuels but also leaks methane, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide. While utility companies are quick to tout natural gas in comparison to other fossil fuel alternatives, the environmental benefits of natural gas pale in comparison to non-emitting renewable energy sources.

Dependence on natural gas still represents a hazard to the state’s carbon-neutral goals in 2050. When new infrastructure is built, utility companies have an incentive to continue to operate well past deadlines to transition away from fossil fuels. According to statistics, many natural gas plants are more than 50 years old at the time of closure. This means the new Nemadji plant, which doesn’t plan on beginning operations until 2027, will likely continue to spew 3 million tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere every year well into the 2070s.

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According to Wisconsin Public Radio, Superior’s mayor recently wrote to the federal Public Service Commission, asking them to halt the construction of the plant over concerns of harm to the community and a lack of commitment to renewable energy infrastructure. 

A transition to net-zero emissions by mid-century is difficult. Continuing to invest in new fossil fuel projects, with extended lifespans, makes the goal nearly impossible. 

News of the Pelican River Forest conservation area and new wind and solar energy projects are signs of a huge step in the right direction. But new carbon-emitting energy infrastructure threatens to undermine all these gains. The state needs to put its foot down on the Nemadji plant and ensure a renewable future for all of us.

Jack Rogers ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying Chinese, economics and political science.

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