Did you know coal in North America was first "discovered" along The Illinois River in 1673? OR, that an exemption to the state's constitution allowed for slavery in its salt mines in the 1800's? Watch this video by Eco-Justice Collaborative to hear more about these facts, and the impact coal has had — and continues to have — on Illinois communities, including their health; economy; and environment. Learn how exploitation of workers and disasters in Illinois mines led to national labor and safety laws; and how rampant, unregulated strip mining spurred two Knox County women to lead an effort that resulted in the passage of mining regulations that remain in effect today.
Some Facts about Illinois Coal
- Coal can be found under 2/3 of the state. Illinois has the largest recoverable reserves in the nation (15%), after Montana.
- Illinois is a top producer of coal, and ranked 4th in the country in 2020. But, it is the third largest producer of bituminous coal. Only West Virginia and Pennsylvania produce more of this high-energy coal.
- In 2019, Illinois mines produced 7% of all coal mined in the U.S. While the COIVID-19 pandemic substantially reduced coal production across the entire country, by 2021 production was rising in most states.This includes Illinois, which experienced over a 20% increase in production over 2020 by the end of the 3rd quarter (3rd quarter comparisons).
- Despite the profit coal mining generates, Illinois remains one of a handful of states that does not have a common sense excise fee that could be used to help communities impacted by mining activities.
- In 2020, coal from Illinois mines generated more carbon dioxide (57 million tons) than was emitted by all of Illinois' coal and natural gas plants (46 million tons) that same year.
- During the 1990s, the high-sulphur content of Illinois coal kept much of it in the ground. This was due to the passage of amendments to the Clean Air Act, which regulated acid rain caused in part, by the burning of fossil fuels. Owners of Illinois power plants decided to import low-sulphur coal from Wyoming, rather than retrofit coal plants.
- Today, 80% of the coal mined in Illinois is exported. In 2019, 20% of all coal mined in Illinois was exported overseas, and the remaining 60% was used domestically in 13 other states — burned in coal plants that had been upgraded to meet clean air standards for sulphur.
- Domestic markets for Illinois coal are likely to decrease between now and 2030, as coal plants in the United States are retired. But, Asia and other developing regions that rely on natural gas (particularly the more costly liquified natural gas) are expected to continue burning coal until at least 2050. Illinois is supplying coal to some of those regions.
Prairie State Coal Plant
- Three fourths of the coal burned in Illinois in 2019 was mined at the Lively Grove Mine in southwestern Illinois. It was used by the Prairie State coal plant, part of the same energy complex, to provide power to 2.5 million families in seven states.
- Built in 2012 as a "clean coal" plant, Prairie State is the 7th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the country. Every year, particulates spewed from its smokestack are responsible for 76 premature deaths.
- Today, much of the coal produced in Illinois is mined via longwall mining, an underground, highly-mechanized, high-extraction form of mining. Coal is removed in panels 900 feet wide (average) that stretch a mile and a half or more long. With this method, 85% or more of a coal seam can be recovered. This compares to more traditional room and pillar mining, which is able to extract about 60%.
- Longwall mining takes place under movable roof supports that advance as the bed is cut. This roof is allowed to fall as the mining advances. This planned subsidence, which typically ranges the depth of the coal seam (from 4 to 6 feet), severely damages homes, buildings, utilities, major pipelines, railroads, state highways and farmland.
- Coal mining employment peaked during World War II, with nearly 100,000 miners. Because mining in Illinois is now highly mechanized, the number of miners in the state plummeted to 3,000. In 2019, the number of coal miners in Illinois was 2,706. That compares to the the 123,247 clean energy jobs that were recorded in that same year.
- While the number of miners will continue to increase or decrease depending on markets, it is clear that Illinois coal mining is not — nor will it become — the major employer it once was.
Is Coal Generation Really Declining?
Over the past seven years, the use of coal-powered electricity in the U.S. has been declining. Emissions from coal fell 10.3 percent in 2020, due to the pandemic, and the use of cost-competitive natural gas and renewables that put coal “in the back seat.” In that same year, announcements of coal plant closures across the country suggested the U.S. was on a trajectory to move beyond coal.
Consistent with this momentum, in 2021, Illinois’ passed its Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. This bill was hailed as model legislation to equitably move the U.S. away from coal. This legislation helped companies like Vistra begin to move from coal to solar and battery storage, and continue their retirement of Illinois coal plants.
But also in 2021, rising natural gas prices in the U.S. — due to a cold winter and tight supplies — increased the use of dirty coal for electricity generation by 17%, the first annual increase in coal-powered generation since 2014. With that increase, overall emissions in the United States rose by 6.2% relative to 2020. This is not good for our climate, and pushes us further from meeting our Paris Agreement targets.
Rising Like a Phoenix?
Because this same scenario occurred in India and China, U.S. coal production, which has a strong export market, increased in 2021. Illinois coal was no exception, and coal production rose 22 percent over 2020 levels (third quarter comparison).
But in 2021, most energy experts were saying that this global trend toward coal generation was temporary, and not expected to continue. That prediction was supported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), until October of that same year. While the agency maintains its prediction that renewable resources — particularly solar and wind — will be the largest contributor to the global generation of electricity through 2050, in now says:
Asia and regions that rely on natural gas, particularly the more costly liquified natural gas, are likely to use coal as their primary fuel for generating electricity through 2050.
This analysis is a reversal of EIA's prior predictions, based on observable trends. The agency now is projecting coal prices will remain low relative to regionally-available natural gas, providing a cost-competitive option in these regions until 2050. The EIA further states their prediction is supported by the lack of strong, regional carbon policies and regulations. Sadly, COP26 did not "consign coal power to history," as had been hoped.
What Does this Mean for Illinois Coal?
Domestic markets for Illinois coal are expected to continue to decrease over time, as cost-competitive renewables increase. But, in 2021, Illinois benefitted from coal exports to India, in addition to the recovery of some domestic markets during the pandemic. It was India and China who led the changes ultimately adopted at COP26 that led to agreements to "phase down" coal under the pretext of eradicating poverty.
In the past, Illinois mine operators have exported coal to China, Pakistan, and South Korea, in addition to India. China has since banned high sulphur coal (Illinois coal's sulphur content is 3 to 5 percent). But Pakistan and South Korea are among the countries expected to continue their use of coal as a primary fuel through 2050.
While it is not possible to predict the future strength and duration of these markets, it is safe to say Illinois could benefit from exports to Asia at a time when the use of domestic coal is rapidly diminishing. That is not to say production will be maintained at current levels experienced post-pandemic. But, export markets, combined with the supply of coal to the Prairie State coal plant, will keep Illinois coal alive for some time. This continued reliance on coal is in stark contrast to calls by scientists, who unequivocally state we must move away from fossil fuels by 2050 to avoid climate catastrophe and an uninhabitable planet.
What Can We Do?
The EIA's analysis is disheartening, and calls on us to redouble our efforts to keep Illinois coal in the ground. We can:
- Implement Illinois' Climate and Equitable Jobs Act to quickly accelerate the growth of energy efficiency (statewide) and lower-cost renewables. This can further reduce the regional demand for Illinois coal.
- Use climate change and the availability of cost-competitive renewables to power Illinois with clean, affordable electricity, as the basis to stop any new mines or mine expansions that might be proposed to meet demand overseas.
- Push the Biden Administration to move countries attending the next U.N. climate summit (COP27) to commit to phase out their use of coal, instead of "phasing down," as was agreed to in 2021 at COP26.
- Insist Congress pass federal legislation that replaces coal and natural gas with renewables, working to ensure that such legislation addresses equity and systemic racism, consistent with the success of Illinois' Climate and Equitable Jobs Act of 2021.
- Work to close the Prairie State coal plant sooner than the 2045 timeline established by the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. This would likely reduce the volume of coal mined at the Lively Grove Mine that supplies coal to this power plant — or, potentially even close it. This mine produced 14 percent of all coal mined in Illinois in 2019, and 20 percent all coal mined in Illinois during the first three quarters of 2021.