Dirty coal rush taints Illinois' clean energy campaign

The state's hypocritical energy push has reached a tipping point

March 14, 2014 8:00AM ET
A coal truck is loaded with another payload at the Crown III underground coal mine near Farmersville, Ill.
Jim Suhr/AP

On March 7, with the fanfare of an election campaign event, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and environmental organizations hailed 91 communities in the Prairie State that now purchase 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources.

Quinn said. “This new study confirms that people around the world can look to Illinois as an example of what can be done with renewable energy.” “Renewable energy benefits everyone, from energy customers to Illinois farmers to anyone who breathes our air,”

This sounds great — and it certainly recognizes grassroots efforts by local communities.

Unfortunately, it’s only half true.  

As part of a long-denounced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde energy policy, the state of Illinois under Quinn — a Democrat who once led anti-strip-mining campaigns and swept into office on promises of regulatory reform — carried out a series of mind-boggling machinations this month in favor of coal mining and hydraulic fracking.

What’s the matter with Illinois? Why is the state pursuing an incoherent, all-of-the-above energy policy with erratic thrusts reminiscent of recent extreme climate disturbances?

Last spring, in fact, Quinn announced his state’s record fivefold increase in coal exports, en route to CO2-spewing coal-fired plants abroad, just as climate scientists were noting that our planet had reached the alarming 400 parts-per-million milestone of CO2 emissions for the first time in millions of years. A subsequent study found that the state of Illinois loses nearly $20 million annually (PDF) to maintain the coal industry.

In that same climate-tone-deaf mode, this month’s clean energy proclamation came as a Chicago Tribune headline noted how hundreds of communities across the heartland are outraged at being locked into a nearly three-decade commitment to Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company, which built and, in 2012, began operating its Prairie State coal-fired plant in southern Illinois. With massive cost overruns that have saddled 217 municipalities and 17 electric membership cooperatives across the Midwest with spiking electricity rates, the plant has since been embroiled in federal investigations over fraud. 

The Peabody Energy debacle even extended into the Illinois coalfields earlier this March. To the fury of local farmers and residents battling to save the historic community of Rocky Branch in southern Illinois — not far from where the Peabody Coal Co. sank its first coal mine in 1895 — out-of-state loggers hired by Peabody moved their clear-cutting equipment onto the most controversial strip-mine site in the state in the dead of night, despite earlier violations for logging operations without any state permits.  

With required state environmental permits still in the public comment period (PDF), the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on March 12 hastily issued the mining permit, as pre-mining logging tore into the forested Shawnee hill habitats that include endangered Indiana bats, according to local residents and naturalists. 

With family roots in Illinois that date back to 1805, I know firsthand that the state’s contradictory policies over fossil-fuel extraction and civil and environmental rights have a long tradition.

Illinois is in the throes of a coal-mining rush not seen in nearly a century. According to an SNL energy analysis released March 6, coal mining in the Illinois Basin has bucked the national trend and continues to soar. Since Quinn took power in 2009, the state has seen mining production increase by nearly 70 percent.

Nowhere has the level of reckless mining been more evident than at the Springfield Coal strip mine in western Illinois. In a maneuver that had the media scratching their heads earlier this month, the DNR pushed for the renewal of the notorious mine’s permit, noting that the hundreds of Clean Water Act violations had been reduced by the state Environmental Protection Agency into a single violation notice. 

Coal isn’t the only black mark on Illinois’ energy push. Despite a public promise by one of Quinn's deputy chiefs of staff last month that no permits would be issued without strengthened fracking rules (which still remain in limbo), the Quinn administration intervened last month to ensure that a second horizontal fracking drilling permit was approved for Strata-X Energy, a Denver-based company that is champing at the bit to open the floodgates of oil and natural gas across the region.

As a historian — with family roots in Illinois that date back to 1805 — I know firsthand that Quinn’s and the state’s contradictory policies over fossil-fuel extraction and civil and environmental rights have a long tradition. 

To the dismay of emancipationists around the country, Illinois ratified its state constitution in 1818 with two clauses, largely to protect its first extraction industries, salt and logging. While slavery was technically abolished, previously enslaved and indentured servants in Illinois remained “voluntarily” indentured. The constitution also had one huge exception: Legal slavery would be permitted “within the tract reserved for the salt works near Shawneetown” until 1825 — the heart of the salt and coalfields near my family’s farm in Eagle Creek. Those same salt works also employed slaves to dig out the coal for the furnaces.

The historical lesson still lingers today: Given a state desperate for tax revenues, the inalienable human rights of Americans become secondary to extraction gains, with a policy engineered in backroom compromises by legislators.

Article XI of the Illinois constitution, added in the 1970s, established environmental protections:

The public policy of the State and the duty of each person is to provide and maintain a healthful environment for the benefit of this and future generations. The General Assembly shall provide by law for the implementation and enforcement of this public policy.

Today, that constitutional mandate languishes forgotten.

As communities across the state continue their extraordinary transition to renewable energy consumption, it’s time for Illinois to come clean on its dirty energy past — and its dirty energy present.

Jeff Biggers is the author of the forthcoming “Damnatio Memoriae,” a play on immigration in Italy, among other works.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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