By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — When it comes to Illinois coal, a lot is riding on the outcome of the November presidential election between Democrat President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
To put it simply, if you’re for coal in Illinois, then you can’t be for Obama, said Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, a Springfield-based group that promotes Illinois coal.
“Obama’s record to us is quite clear. He’s no friend of coal,” Gonet said, noting that Romney recently made a campaign stop at an Ohio coal mine and that his staff has talked to the National Mining Association. “We believe there will be a place for coal in energy policy in a Romney administration, so it’s real clear to us.”
Romney brought up coal during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, which focused on domestic policy, saying he supports the industry.
“By the way, I like coal. I’m going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal,” the former Massachusetts governor said, telling Obama, “People in the coal industry feel like it’s getting crushed by your policies.”
There’s a reason the coal industry feels that way, said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois chapter. Illinois already has begun moving the direction of a clean-energy economy.
“I was surprised by how frank Mitt Romney was about his opposition to clean energy and his allegiance to fossil fuels and sources of the past,” Darin said. “I think that’s what his policy proposals suggest he would prioritize, but I did not expect him to be so blunt about it because I don’t think that’s what most Americans want.”
The Sierra Club has endorsed Obama for another four years in the White House. During Wednesday night’s debate, Obama said he and Romney agree on the importance of increasing domestic energy production.
“But I also believe that we’ve got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels and make those investments,” Obama said.
Obama has proposed several rules among different federal agencies that make it difficult to mine coal or burn it to fuel power plants, Gonet said.
“We don’t believe that any of these rules have any solid scientific basis in terms of improving health or safety, and we believe they’re designed pretty much solely to put coal out of business. So this is a key election for us,” he said.
Coal, once king in Obama’s home state of Illinois, has been in a slump for decades because of tightening environmental regulations. Illinois coal is “dirty,” or high in sulfur. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 required power plants to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, which essentially meant they had to install expensive “scrubbing” equipment or get their coal from other states, such as Wyoming, where the sulfur content is low.
Illinois coal production was cut in half, and mining jobs dwindled from 10,000 to 3,500.
However, coal is making a comeback in the Land of Lincoln, Gonet said, because it has become more economical for some power plants to install scrubbers and burn Illinois coal. In 2011, 85 percent of the coal produced in Illinois went out of state. Coal production nationwide is down, but it’s on the rise in the Illinois Basin, a region that includes Illinois, western Indiana and western Kentucky.
More Illinois coal is going out of the country, too. According to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, about 7-million tons of coal, was exported in 2011.
Illinois’ coal production peaked in the 1920s when everyone relied on the fossil fuel — homes, businesses, the railroads, the electric industry and more. Illinois produced about 100 million tons of coal each year for a few years in the ‘20s.
It dropped to about 60 million tons per year in the 1980s and 1990s but held steady. After that it dropped to 30-some-million tons a year but is on the rebound. Illinois coal production rose 13 percent between 2010 and 2011, Gonet said. In 2010, the state mined between 40 and 45 million tons and is on tap to mine more than 50 million tons in 2013.
Mining jobs are on the rise, too. About 4,400 people work in the industry now. Three new mines are expected to be operating by the end of the year, and another is under construction in Hamilton County. Of the 23 coal mines in Illinois currently only two have unionized labor.
“That’s why this election is so critical, because Obama has regulations out there that will make it harder for us to not only mine coal but to send it out of the country,” Gonet said.
Darin said there are other ways to create energy-related jobs in Illinois, such as building wind farms that cut down on pollution. Illinois has about 20,000 wind jobs, in part because of a 25-percent clean-energy goal 2025. A key federal tax incentive for wind developers expires at the end of the year.
“Illinois clean-energy companies have said they’re going to have to scale back or perhaps even stop developing if that rug is pulled out from under them. And Romney has committed to doing that,” Darin said.
“I think last night we saw a very stark choice between continuing down that path to jobs and a healthier environment or going back to being reliant on dirty fossil fuels.”