By CARL GREEN
Southern Illinois legislators are trying to revive the demand here for Illinois coal, saying local miners should not be out of work while the state imports tons of coal from Wyoming sources.
But at the same time, Gov. Bruce Rauner is trying to close a state office that is widely credited with helping build the market for Illinois coal.
The group, led by Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill and Rep. John Bradley of Marion, both Democrats, is calling for the state to change regulations that encourage utilities to buy low-sulfur western coal instead of investing in new technology for cleaner burning of Illinois coal.
“There is something absurd about paying more for out-of-state coal when there are Illinois coal miners out of work, and an entire region suffers from high unemployment,” Manar said.
They cited the Coffeen Power Station, located about six miles from the Deer Run mine at Hillsboro, north of the Metro East in Montgomery County. Instead of using local coal, the plant burns coal shipped some 900 miles from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.
“Coffeen is a small-scale example, but if we increase the demand for local coal, the benefits will ripple throughout the state and its economy,” Manar said.
The lawmakers held a press conference last month to state their ideas for reviving the market for Illinois coal.
“To put people to work and grow our economy, we must take advantage of the coal resources that lie beneath out feet,” Bradley said. “Coal mining and the economic spin-off was a leading force in Illinois’ economic development decades ago and certainly should be again as we seek to employ more Illinoisans in the years to come.”
NOT SO DIRTY?
The downfall of Illinois coal came with amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 that targeted sulfur dioxide. Utilities had to either install expensive scrubbers or else bring coal from the west. They chose the latter, and the share of Illinois coal burned in the state dropped from 61 percent in 1990 to 0.7 percent in 2010. Industry employment fell from 10,000 in 1990 to 3,500 in 2010 and now stands at 4,300.
But recent, new air quality standards that will require all coal plants to install scrubbers could make Illinois coal more competitive.
The legislators say the denser Illinois coal burns hotter and produces less carbon dioxide, which means cleaner energy once scrubbers are in place. So they are targeting the “fuel adjustment charge,” which allows utilities to shift the cost of importing western coal to their customers, essentially forcing Illinois residents to subsidize their own state’s economic setback.
Bradley and Manar say it costs $26 a ton to ship the western coal here but only $6 a ton to supply local coal. Tapping that difference could save $1 billion a year, enough to cut $700 million a year in costs for consumers and still provide $300 million for the scrubbers while dropping carbon dioxide emissions by several tons a year.
Illinois coal reserves are the second largest in the nation and greater than in all but six countries. Twenty-four mines remain in operation, but employment has dropped from 10,000 to 4,300, and all remaining union mines were closed in the decline, the last was Crown III mine in Macoupin County, which closed in December 2013.
Coal plan facts
• Illinois has more coal reserves than all but six countries in the world.
• Coal generates $2.8 billion in economic activity in Illinois each year and employs more than 5,000 miners.
• New rules requiring scrubbers at all coal-fired plants could make Illinois coal cleaner to use while saving millions in shipping and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
• Legislators believe their plan could create 8,000 new jobs and save consumers millions.