No Quick Fixes for Struggling Illinois Coal Industry
March 28, 2017
By Tim Landis
City Water, Light and Power of Springfield is one of only three power plants in Illinois that still burn Illinois coal.
Even if an executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump withstands anticipated legal challenges, little is expected to change in the short term for an industry that has watched production and jobs steadily decline as a result of stricter clean-air rules, fuel switching by utilities and competition from cheaper natural gas. Illinois coal production fell for the second year in a row in 2016, to 43.3 million tons.
Industry employment in Illinois last year of 3,600 was the lowest since 2010 and far below the 10,000 employed the year the federal Clean Air Act took effect in 1990. Arch Coal Co. and Peabody Energy Corp., both based in St. Louis, filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Arch, owner of the Viper Mine near Elkhart, completed bankruptcy reorganization in October.
“We very much welcome this, but it’s not going to bring coal back to where it was,” Illinois Coal Association president Phil Gonet said Tuesday. “At least it stops the bleeding.”
Gonet said Obama-era climate rules have been the biggest factor in the decline of Illinois coal, though natural gas competition has hurt, too.
“Most of it has been power plants shutting down, but the price of natural gas has had an effect,” said Gonet. “We can compete with natural gas, if we’re given a level playing field.”
More Coal, Fewer Miners
Even if coal sales improve, mining techniques require ever fewer miners for increased production. The 3,600 miners required to produce 43.3 million tons of Illinois coal in 2016 was approximately the same number required to produce 33.4 million tons in 2010, according to coal association figures.
Federal statistics indicate that U.S. production of 739 million tons last year was the lowest in four decades. Employment fell by 60,000 from 2011 to 2016, to approximately 77,000.
The Illinois Sierra Club pointed out Tuesday that the president’s action was taken on the same day the Solar Foundation released an annual employment census showing the solar industry employs more state workers than coal. The 3,700 solar jobs in Illinois last year was up 7 percent from 2015, according to the report.
“Illinois is on course to become the national leader in wind power, solar energy and conservation programs, and we should not let President Trump’s crusade against science, and our legal and moral obligation to act on climate change, determine our future,” Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “States that continue with efforts to limit carbon pollution will now be more likely to attract the jobs, economic investment and cleaner air offered by the steadily growing clean energy economy.”
CWLP, the Prairie State Energy Campus in southwest Illinois and a Southern Illinois Power Cooperative plant near Marion are the only remaining in-state customers for Illinois coal.
Traditionally coal-reliant rural electric cooperatives expect nationwide solar-energy capacity at the end of 2017 to be five times the capacity of 2012, according to a report released earlier this month by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. A group of Midwest cooperatives recently launched ruralsolarstories.org to highlight the shift toward renewable power.
“The marketplace has changed to the point that there are many alternatives in natural gas, solar, wind and energy efficiency, which are economically competitive,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a renewable-energy advocacy group based in Chicago.