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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 12:21 am

Making America toxic again

Some politicians want to bring back coal

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The new president, apparently, plans to make America toxic again. The New York Times reports that Comrade Trump has put a climate-change agnostic and friend of the coal companies in charge of his Environmental Protection Agency transition team. Not to fear, however. He is doing it for the very best of reasons – because he promised to do so in return for the support of desperate voters in coal country.

That includes parts of Illinois. Ivanka should explain to her father – a man who doesn’t seem to have read a newspaper since 1979 – that it is not Barack Obama who is killing coal in our southern counties but Adam Smith. The abundant supplies of natural gas liberated by fracking makes it cheaper to replace aging coal plants with new generation plants powered by gas, like the 1,100-megawatt combined cycle facility Competitive Power Ventures built in Grundy County. (Trump, by the way, also promises to increase fracking, which will only make things worse for coal.) As for exports, Europe is switching to solar and wind power and China is cleaning up its emissions. Donald Trump may have been able to persuade a minority of American voters to pick him as president, but American voters are suckers. The people who run energy companies aren’t.

Nonetheless, Little Trumps in the persons of Downstate legislators want to tip the balance back toward coal using taxpayer and ratepayer money. Bills are in the works to ask the Illinois Commerce Commission to devise a way to pay for scrubbers on old plants now burning low-sulfur Western coal. The bill’s authors also want Illinois electric utilities to contract with “clean-coal burning facilities” for at least some of their power. Herr Rauner installed pro-coal people as both his new energy and environmental policy adviser and as his Natural Resources director, and like his predecessors bows to the god of Clean Coal (which like all gods has not been proven to exist).

I’ve been writing and reporting about Illinois coal for 40 years, and I’ve been bored by the topic for 39 of them. In all that time I have yet to hear a rationale for using the stuff more convincing than political expedience. Lawmakers pandering to coal communities (in fact, to the latter’s employers) have waved all sorts of magic wands trying to turn Illinois coal into gas or liquid fuels or clean it of sulfur before it was burned or bury underground the CO2 from its burning; they even threw bureaucrats at the problem (the Office of Coal Marketing and Development at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity). Few of the proposed projects made engineering sense and none made financial sense. In effect, lawmakers burned hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to turn this sow’s ear of a fuel into something beautifully profitable.

I’d be more sympathetic to the plea to save the coal industry in Illinois if there was a coal industry in Illinois. Sure, Illinois sells a lot of coal, but the money, like the coal, mostly goes out of state. As for jobs, in recent years mining employed only about 3,000 people in a state in which some 6.2 million people are working, meaning that out of every 2,000 working Illinoisans, only one of them mines coal. The usual rejoinder is that while those jobs might mean nothing to Illinois they mean everything to people living where coal jobs are the only decent jobs to be had. But the sensible solution to that very real problem is not to subsidize a dying industry but to subsidize new lives for living people in coal counties, through retraining and relocation stipends. Or just write a check each year for $80,000 to each miner and let them stay home and fix up the johnboat. It would be cheaper for the taxpayers and better for the planet.

Neither technology nor economics favor coal. Trump’s energy policy, such as it is, is nostalgic. It has appeal to people who remember the acrid stink of coal smoke the way some people remember the smell of burning leaves in the fall. It reminds them of the America they grew up in, and they want it back. But coal will not be our energy future, nor should it be. As coals go, Illinois coal has its virtues. It’s cheap to mine, it burns hot and we have the commercial waterways needed to ship it to godawful places like China. But burning Illinois coal destroys forests downwind. Makes babies sick. Eats away building stone. Turns lakes to acid. Contributes more than any other fossil fuel to global warming that threatens to devastate the planet. All that to save less that five-hundredths of one percent of the jobs in Illinois? That’s not development. That’s vandalism.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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