Coal Nation

by Pete Martin:

Germantown, Illinois, is a town of 1,100 people off I-64, in the heart of the state’s coal country. When the coal mine in the town closed in 1996, a mound of waste remained, leaving behind toxins that had been buried in the coal underground. Residents call the mound a “gob pile,” but it looks more like a hill.

Robert Johnson, PE, stands in front of the so-called 'Glob Pile' in Germantown, Illinois. (Martin/TYG)

In the dozen years since, toxic chemicals have seeped into the aquifer that supplies the town’s water. “A lot of people got sick, really sick, with cancer and all sorts of weird illnesses, from drinking the water,” said Robert L. Johnson, a licensed professional engineer and an environmental consultant who has done legal work on Germantown’s behalf. “But there’s nothing I can do about the illnesses, so I focus on the regulations.” Johnson has fought the company and the state to get the pile removed, but so far he has had no success.

Stories like Germantown’s come out of history books, so it may surprise Americans to hear them today. Coal itself seems to be a relic of the past, a staple and symbol of the industrial age, before environmental concern began to play a role in energy decisions. But coal is no less important to our national economy than it once was. Nor is it any less important to thousands of miners and their communities throughout the country, although they are fewer in number today.

Illinois is a minor and long-ignored player among coal states. It has never been the largest coal producer in the country, and when the center of American coal production shifted from the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia to the sprawling plateaus of Wyoming 20 years ago, Illinois was skipped over. Regulations on sulfur emissions have left the sulfur-rich coal of the Illinois Basin with few customers, and today the state’s coal industry is an echo of what it once was.

Tens of thousands of former miners are out of work in central and southern Illinois. Countless towns once supported by coal are economically depressed. Looking for solutions, the state and its coal industry have begun thinking creatively, pressing for cleaner and more efficient coal technology in hopes of restoring its coal past.

Nevertheless, despite controversy on all sides of the battle over coal’s future, the rock itself will decide.

An Industry of the Past

The Illinois Coal Association was founded in 1878 as the trade organization for the coal companies operating in the state. Phil Gonet, the association’s president, has a poster with dozens of faces of the 1906 board in his Springfield office. Gonet is one of only three people listed on the association’s website today.

He came to Illinois after graduate school to work at a local utility; now he is responsible for promoting the state’s coal industry and explaining its importance to outsiders.

“A lot of people came to this state in the early 1900s to mine,” he said. “A lot of them, in central and southern Illinois, came here from Europe to mine coal. It was the lifeblood of southern Illinois for a long time.”

Those days are gone. After the state’s production peak in 1918, decades of declining demand followed, thanks to the slowed westward expansion of the country and the emergence of new energy sources. But most of the damage has come in recent years. The 1990 extension of the Clean Air Act limited sulfur emissions from power generation, leaving even fewer customers for sulfur-rich Illinois coal. The industry Gonet represents has been in decline ever since.

But some companies have not done poorly. The Illinois Coal Association has a dozen member companies, many with operations in other states. Peabody Energy, one of the members, is the largest coal mining company in the world. Hardly known outside of the industry, Peabody’s global coal reserves contain more potential energy than ExxonMobil’s entire petroleum store. The company’s Illinois operation is a fraction of its facilities in Wyoming, where it operates vast strip mines, but it remains a dominant player in the Midwest. Peabody is building the largest power plant under construction in the country, the Prairie State Energy Campus, in the small downstate town of Marissa.

Prairie State has been helped along by grants and tax incentives from the state. The money will come out of a fund established by the Coal Act of 2000. The state bill provided incentives to power companies to build plants next to mines, eliminating transportation costs and keeping plants in-state. The employment potential and tax revenue Prairie State promises are expected to be a windfall for Illinois, but the project comes with a $3 billion price tag. The fund was established to make this type of venture possible.

The project has Gonet excited. He showed off Peabody’s official literature: “Represents the next generation of clean coal … Power for 1.7 million families … 500 permanent jobs, 2,500 constructions jobs … To use six million tons of Illinois coal.” In the town of about 2,000 people, with recent unemployment around ten percent, 500 new jobs would revitalize the local economy.

But despite Peabody’s claims, Prairie State will be far from clean. It will use pulverized coal, a technology dating to the 1920s that has since been superseded by technological improvements making coal power cleaner. Illinois coal, however, is unsuitable for many other furnace types because of its high sulfur content. In pulverized coal plants, 80 percent of the ash escapes in exhaust gas, taking with it toxins and carbon from the rock. Despite minor upgrades over the years, pulverized coal is dirty, differing little from the coal-fired power plants of decades ago.

But for now, Prairie State is the best option Illinois has.

A Future in Clean Coal

Bill Hoback works for the state as the chief of the Office of Coal Development, a division of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The white-collar job hides his mining past.

“I started work in the mines when I was 23,” Hoback said. “I realized early on that it wasn’t an industry without problems. The Clean Air Act was being talked about, and I saw some people sticking their heads in the sand, saying, ‘No, we don’t have to deal with that.’ I started looking into clean coal technology while I was working in the mines, trying to understand what was available there, and I began believing technology is the best way to go.”

In his current position, he has more power to push for cleaner technology, and he has tried to do so. “We’ve been very focused—not on supporting the actual coal industry, per se—more on different kinds of technologies that can utilize coal. But instead of doing the research, we’re focusing more on building the plants.”

The Office of Coal Development is in business to make Illinois coal desirable to power companies and exploitable to mining companies. It provides grants and tax incentives in order to encourage investment in mining, power plants, and even experimental coal technology. Since Illinois’s sulfurous coal is undesirable to power plants, development efforts must be innovative.

“Clean coal technology is the road back for Illinois coal,” he said. “For coal to be king, it’s got to be clean.”

Success seemed to come this winter, when an international partnership of mining and utility companies called the FutureGen Alliance selected Mattoon, Illinois, over sites in Texas for their groundbreaking project to build a zero-emissions coal-fired power plant. FutureGen was to be both a coal research facility and power plant, generating power while serving as a center for clean technology research. Most importantly it was to be capable of capturing carbon emissions to store underground. In energy circles, it was seen as the greatest promise for developing coal technology that would reduce pollution and no longer contribute to global warming.

Hoback’s office worked with the Mattoon team to make its proposal the most attractive. “It’s a technology we worked really hard to bring to Illinois,” he said.

But in the end, the Office of Coal Development’s work in Springfield was not enough to overcome the political hurdles in Washington. Only a month after the alliance’s announcement, the Department of Energy pulled its support, citing soaring costs. Along with federal help went 75 percent of FutureGen’s funding. Undersecretary of Energy C. H. “Bud” Albright soon thereafter let slip on a conference call with FutureGen Alliance members that the federal government had no interest in “building Disneyland in some swamp in Illinois.” Albright’s subsequent retraction did little to convince locals that Washington is committed to reviving the project.

Hoback’s environmental concern seems sincere, although the environment is not his office’s only consideration. “The responsibility is here in Illinois. We wouldn’t get started on anything if we didn’t think it made sense for us.” Ultimately, Hoback’s work in Springfield for the next great environmental hope was nullified by the politics and gridlock of Washington.

And the Office of Coal Development has had to turn to other projects. The office was responsible for helping secure grants for Prairie State, the first project to receive funding from the Coal Act of 2000.

Prairie State and FutureGen represent, respectively, the past and future of coal power. But in Illinois, the projects are less symbolic. The loss of FutureGen meant a loss of hundreds of new jobs. Somehow, those jobs will need to be found again.

Mining the Prairie State

“The name ‘Prairie State Energy Campus’ sounds pretty innocuous, but it’s a $2.9-billion coal-fired power plant,” said Mike Murphy, a farmer who lives in Marissa, only a mile and a half from the plant’s site. He owns a 40-acre organic farm, on which he and his wife raise grass-fed livestock.

Given his interest in safeguarding his land, he said, “It’s kind of interesting we’re winding up next to a coal-fired power plant.” Interesting is a euphemism. Murphy is not interested in the plant at all, except to see it go.

He is not an environmental crusader, and he knows his town well. Marissa has been economically depressed for over a decade, and no one in the area would turn down a good opportunity for new jobs, so he was initially receptive to the project.

“We’ve been trying to learn how this could affect us so we could make decisions about where we raise our kids, and our property, and things like that.”

Peabody claims Prairie State’s environmental impact on the surrounding area will be minimal. “There have been a couple permitting challenges to the project that Prairie State has successfully won, like from the Sierra Club,” said Christopher Smith, a representative for the company. “Peabody went through the Illinois EPA, which did extensive studies on the environmental impact. Peabody did not do anything separate than what was required by the state and local government, but it got all the required permits.”

But Murphy believes that the consequences may be disastrous for his farm and his family, and he is fighting the project. The mine that feeds the plant is most worrying. “I don’t own the coal rights under my farm,” he explained. Mineral rights belong to the owner of the land above, but they can be sold off, as they have been in much of Illinois. Peabody would not confirm how large the mine would be, but it may extend even beyond Marissa.

“I’m concerned because they’re probably going to mine under my farm,” said Murphy, “but they’re not just going to take the coal, they’re going to take the water table. I’m concerned that I’m not going to have the water resources anymore—and if I am, that they’re going to be contaminated.” Mines often destroy water tables near them, for they use the water to wash the coal, meanwhile mixing in natural toxins. Such damage would ruin local farms.

The main problem for Marissa’s residents is not the power plant, whose emissions will disperse over the area and into the atmosphere. Instead, local destruction will come from the mine that will feed the plant. When Prairie State begins operation, it will bring long-desired jobs to the struggling town, but at a high cost to the same population. The environmental effects will have immediate—and potentially disastrous—consequences for locals. As clean as coal will ever be, coal mining will never be harmless.

Beyond Power Plants

Where out-of-work miners still search for jobs, the consequences of coal mining and burning are easily pushed aside by the effects of unemployment, at least in the short term. The important fact is the lasting one: underneath the United States sits one-fourth of the world’s coal. The United States has the largest coal reserves of any country and more energy in coal than the Middle East has in oil. Those in coal country have only one question: how else can we sell our coal?

Bill Hoback has ideas about an old technology: cold-to-liquids. “Now we’re looking at beyond just electricity. Substitute natural gas, fertilizer, all these things we’re now becoming more and more dependent on. We’re looking around, saying, ‘Coal can pick up a lot of this.’”

Coal-to-liquid technology dates to the first half of the 20th century and has been used in several countries to create relatively small amounts of liquid fuel, usually diesel. The American coal industry and coal-rich states are hopping at the prospect of mass-scale liquefaction (also called gasification), which could turn coal into oil and synthetic natural gas to power cars and heat homes.

“Gasification’s not a new technology,” Phil Gonet explained. “But it’s never been done in this country and on a large-scale commercial development. That’s what investors are looking at.”

In Illinois, Governor Rod Blagojevich and Senator Barack Obama have come out in favor of expanding the technology, as have politicians in other states with large coal industries. The coal companies themselves are eager, too.

If coal can ensure our energy security, why not develop the technology? For now, economic limitations stand in the way and investors are hard to find, although, unlike carbon capture, the technology is already here. “Investors are skittish because of the volatility of oil prices,” said Gonet. “They think once we start building these gasification plants and we start producing our own fuel from coal, OPEC will cut the price and they’ll be at a loss.”

Illinois coal must wait. With politicians in both parties supporting gasification, the wait may not be long. If significant investment in gasification does come, investment will quickly flow back into Illinois again to mine newly demanded coal.

Coal is Still King

Illinois coal is not typical American coal; in fact, the two have run counter to each other. While Illinois coal has suffered, American coal has prospered. Since 1970, coal production in Illinois has been cut by more than half; over the same period, the amount of coal produced for power across the country has tripled. That difference has been covered by a boom in production in the Mountain West, where massive machines carve into huge coal seams, tearing off veins of coal 10 times as thick as those back east.

Since coal is of no use to anyone until it is mined, those in coal country are always trying to mine their coal as quickly as possible. In West Virginia, where coal mining has dominated the state economy for nearly 200 years, the natural landscape has substantially changed. The state now suffers from heavy levels of pollution and high incidences of flooding, and is by several measures the poorest in the nation. Yet coal mining continues.

Across coal country, mining provides jobs and little else. It brings no stability to mining communities, and it often forestalls the establishment of healthy economies. But the urge to mine only grows, thanks to a promise of progress that is yet to come.

With large-scale gasification yet unrealized, coal remains the power source it has always been. Coal-fired power plants provide nearly half of the electricity generated in the United States. Natural gas and nuclear power each generate another 20 percent, and renewable energy sources account for only about eight percent. Coal is by far the cheapest source. And it will remain so until it begins to run out, a century or two from now. Until then, coal will continue to power the country.

Pete Martin is a sophomore Religious Studies major in Morse College.