Gasification may fuel comeback of Illinois coal industry

Gasification may fuel comeback of Illinois coal industry

After decades of decline, the Illinois coal industry is poised to make a big comeback.

Coal gasification projects will lead the way, said Bill Hoback, chief of the Illinois Office of Coal Development in Springfield.

“Coal gasification offers the very best technology for coal, coal companies and coal miners to be around for a long time,” Hoback said.

This technology “bakes” coal with high temperatures to break chemical bonds, turning the coal into a gas that’s burned to generate electricity.

This method could prove a huge boon for Illinois coal industry because it renders its sulfur content irrelevant. Federal clean air rules dating back to 1990 devastated demand for Illinois coal because it is high in sulfur.

Overall, analysts predict a financial boon in the years ahead for America’s big coal-producing states because of the federal government’s efforts to promote energy independence and combat global warming.

Hoback said Illinois enjoys two big advantages.

First, Illinois possesses huge coal reserves — more than 30 billion tons stretching beneath nearly two-thirds of the state, or more than 300 years worth of reserves.

Second, Illinois has lots of old coal mines. There are at least 17 counties featuring at least two places where the carbon-dioxide stripped away during gasification can be trapped, Hoback said.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the director of Public Citizen’s chapter in Austin, Texas, echoed Hoback’s enthusiasm for coal gasification.

“We think if coal is going to be the fuel that’s used, gasification is by far the smartest way to go at this point,” said Smith, who is leading the fight against 18 traditional coal-fired plants scheduled to be built in Texas. “With carbon sequestration, it’s the best way to use coal.”

Smith’s views represent a consensus emerging in government circles, the power industry and environmental groups that coal gasification is the best way to use coal and combat global warming.

But skeptics remain. One is Jay Lehr, science director of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank in Chicago that’s been funded by ExxonMobil.

Mainstream science holds that global warming, as manifested by the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and intensifying hurricanes, is influenced by human activities, such as the 20 billion tons or so of carbon dioxide emitted annually by the world’s cars and coal-fired power plants.

Lehr, however, holds that the global warming trend stems from natural variations in the sun’s radiation levels and the earth’s orbit.

“Even if we were responsible, there’s nothing whatsoever we can do about it,” Lehr said. “So much of this is motivated politically to make people think we’re doing something, make you feel like you’re attacking the problem.”

But Smith has a much greater sense of urgency about global warming.

“If we quit emitting all our carbon tomorrow, we will have a 100-year or more warming trend and very significant carbon overload that we’re going to have to begin to reduce,” Smith said.

Still, big steps need to be taken now — steps that could pay off in the long run, he said.

“It is time for heroic action,” Smith said. “It will take more than a century. But if we don’t we will have cooked the climate for our kids and grandkids. And we will have reached the point where many of them will not survive.

“This is like playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun.”


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