Gov. J.B. Pritzker promises to move Illinois into a clean energy future. He pledges to make the state a leader in fighting climate change.
But key decisions by the Chicago Democrat’s administration could ensure Illinois remains one of the nation’s biggest contributors of lung-damaging, climate-changing pollution for years to come.
Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Chair state Sen. Kimberly Lightford said the caucus is holding Gov. JB Pritzker, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, accountable for their pledged support for the ILBC agenda.
Illinois already is a major supplier of coal, the chief source of heat-trapping gases warming the planet. After Pritzker took office in early 2019, his administration began clearing the way for a new coal mine, despite a sharp fall in demand for the fossil fuel as electric utilities shift to cheaper, cleaner sources of energy.
Pritzker appointees also tentatively approved a 12-mile pipeline that every day would dump millions of gallons of toxic waste into a Mississippi River tributary, making it easier for a recently bankrupt company to continue digging coal out of the state’s second-largest mine.
The governor’s aides said their reviews of the projects are far from over. “We don’t agree that the administration’s decisions are locking Illinois into a coal-dependent future,” Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s spokeswoman, said in an email response to questions from the Chicago Tribune.
Abudayyeh said the governor made his intentions clear with a list of principles for a clean-energy future. But Pritzker’s “Putting Customers & Climate First” agenda does not address the impacts of coal mining.
State support for coal companies reflects the lingering clout of a once-dominant industry in Illinois, where the southern, coal-rich portion of the state is closer to the Deep South than Chicago and is still tied politically to a bygone era.
Four years after President Donald Trump vowed he would save the industry, coal is expected to provide less than a fifth of the nation’s electricity this year, down from more than half a decade ago. Industry giants -- once regulars on the Fortune 500 list of profitable companies -- are closing mines, shedding jobs and seeking bankruptcy protection from creditors.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of any state or analyst upbeat about the future of coal,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “Increasingly, the discussion is about how we can navigate a just, humane transition.”
Climate promises, coal policies
Coal mines keep being approved even as the damage to public health and the environment becomes more widely understood.
During 2019 alone, companies that burned Illinois coal released more than 82 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to a formula developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The staggering amount of climate-changing pollution is equivalent to more than three years of emissions from the 4.6 million automobiles registered in Illinois.
Eight underground coal mines operating in Illinois also pollute rivers and streams. Two are on the EPA’s watchlist of major Clean Water Act offenders, federal records show; four others have violated limits on toxic metals and chemicals dumped into waterways this year.
What makes the disconnect more jarring between Pritzker’s climate promises and his coal policies: The state’s highly automated, non-union mines employ fewer workers every year. Most of what is dug out of the ground ends up in other states and countries.
Illinois mine employment peaked in 1930, when more than 51,000 workers extracted nearly 52 million tons of coal. The workforce has been declining ever since.
By the end of 2019, federal records show, the number of miners in the state had dropped to fewer than 3,000. Yet only Wyoming, West Virginia and Pennsylvania mined more coal last year than the 45 million tons from Illinois.
Production dipped only slightly in recent years while overseas markets dried up and domestic customers switched to cleaner-burning, less-expensive natural gas and pollution-free wind power.
Squeezed by rivals and faced with legal pressure from environmental groups, energy companies announced the retirement of 322 coal-fired power plants across the nation during the past decade, including nine during the past year in Illinois, according to a list compiled by the nonprofit Sierra Club.
Many of the remaining coal plants operate far less frequently than they once did.
“All of these coal companies can’t survive in a rational economic climate,” said Seth Feaster, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit group that tracks the transition from fossil fuels. “Sooner rather than later there will be no place for their coal to go.”
The coronavirus pandemic is another setback. Between January and June, federal records show, Illinois coal mines cut more than 900 jobs.
What’s left of coal-fired electric generation in Illinois is fueled mostly by out-of-state suppliers. During the early 1990s, the state’s utilities decided it was less expensive to comply with the federal Clean Air Act by switching to low-sulfur Wyoming coal instead of installing pollution-control equipment to scrub high-sulfur Illinois coal.
But Illinois coal has a lasting effect on global climate wherever it is burned. It also is a major source of lung-damaging pollution that triggers respiratory ailments and contributes to heart disease close and far away from coal-fired power plants and factories.
“If you are going to align your state’s energy policies with your climate and health goals, you have to do something about coal mining,” said Bruce Nilles, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Imperative project and former leader of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
Based on his public statements, Pritzker is one of several Democratic governors mindful that if climate change is left unchecked, surges of extreme heat, wildfires, drought, flooding and rising seas could kill millions of people and devastate the global economy.
Pritzker and the other governors vow their states will rely solely on carbon-free electricity or become carbon-neutral by 2050. They contend their plans will help heal the planet while creating thousands of jobs to manufacture, build and maintain wind turbines, solar panels and other sources of renewable energy.
"We’re already experiencing the damaging effects of climate change, and the challenges we face require immediate action,” Pritzker said shortly after taking office.
Two months ago the governor outlined his principles to accelerate what so far has been a slow but steady shift to clean energy. “By working together," he said, "we can build on that progress to protect consumers and the climate.”
During his 2018 campaign, Pritzker promised Illinois would reduce climate pollution on par with the Paris Agreement, a global treaty Trump withdrew from at the urging of fossil fuel executives. Candidate Pritzker also lambasted the industry-friendly record of his Republican opponent, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose 2015 inauguration was bankrolled in part by one of the state’s coal magnates.
As governor, Pritzker officially joined states and cities on record saying they will comply with the climate accord. He followed up by extending lifelines to some of the same coal executives who backed Rauner, including Robert F. Murray, a major Trump fundraiser who spearheaded the Republican president’s rollbacks of clean air and water regulations.
Foresight Energy, a company Murray controlled until last month, wants to build a pipeline for contaminated water seeping into its Pond Creek mine in Williamson County, about 300 miles south of Chicago. The pipeline would empty into the Big Muddy River, a major regional waterway still impaired by pollution from earlier mining operations.
In July 2019, the Illinois EPA tentatively approved one of at least three permits Foresight needs before construction can begin. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources awarded another permit in January.
During a December hearing, an Illinois EPA official said it is “just not economical” for the company to filter toxic chemicals in its wastewater.
Foresight and its parent company, Murray Energy, declared bankruptcy during the past year. The restructured companies are severing their affiliation, though both will continue to be led by Robert F. Murray’s nephew, according to court documents.
Neither company returned calls and emails from the Chicago Tribune. At the Illinois EPA hearing, a Foresight executive said the pipeline is needed to keep workers safe during the projected 50-year life of the Pond Creek mine.
“The economic boost that this mining operation provides to southern Illinois is very, very significant,” said Clayton Cross, the company’s engineering director.
Another company is planning a new coal mine in Vermilion County. The proposed Bulldog Mine stalled during Rauner’s four years in office but secured its mining permit after Pritzker became governor.
Pritzker aides noted that Sunrise Coal needs other permits before mining could begin. It is unclear if Sunrise will follow through on its plans after the Illinois EPA required the Indiana-based company to reapply for permission to pollute nearby streams.
Sunrise did not respond to questions from the Tribune, but an industry trade group said coal is still needed to generate electricity.
“If the state wishes to increase its reliance on more renewable energy resources, coal will be a vital support system to maintain grid reliability during such a transition,” Nick Williams, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said in an email. “In a shrinking market, the low-cost provider will prevail."
'Some really unique areas’
Industry backers note that coal played a key role in the development of Illinois after statehood in 1818, with mines eventually developed in 76 of the 102 counties.
The state also was a battleground in the fight for unions to protect workers. Mother Jones, the firebrand organizer, is buried in Mount Olive next to union miners slain during one of the most violent labor disputes. Farther south, 19 strikebreakers, three union miners and a company executive were killed during the Herrin Massacre, a series of gunfights and extrajudicial executions recalled later by the historian Paul Angle in his book “Bloody Williamson.”
Today none of the state’s miners belong to a union. With fewer people working in the industry, Wall Street-financed corporations can’t depend on the same level of public support they enjoyed when union miners held many of the jobs in southern Illinois.
People living today in Illinois counties with coal mines are more likely to work in health care, state employment data shows. Other top employers include Southern Illinois University and state prisons.
Natives, transplants and tourists are drawn to the region’s lakes and forested sandstone canyons for hiking, hunting and fishing. In letters to state officials and comments during public hearings, outdoor enthusiasts said the temporary promise of jobs isn’t worth the scars left by coal mining.
“Local folks down here ... are bothered by this,” John Jackson of the Shawnee chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society said during one of the pipeline hearings. “The Big Muddy passes through some really unique areas, areas you don’t have in Springfield or anywhere else in the state.”
Tenny Naumer, a Marion accountant whose family has lived in the area for more than a century, pressed state officials to acknowledge they did not consider Foresight’s financial condition while reviewing permits needed before the pipeline can be built.
Naumer noted the company’s own records show it failed to make a profit during each of the past five years and was removed from the New York Stock Exchange before declaring bankruptcy.
“They’re going belly up,” Naumer said. “What are they going to do when it’s cleanup time? How are they going to pay for that?”
Gamble pays off
As recently as 2017, politicians, analysts and journalists hailed Foresight as a rare bright spot in a dwindling industry.
Founded by a third-generation West Virginia miner named Chris Cline, Foresight bought the rights to dormant coal reserves in four southern Illinois counties during the mid-2000s. Cline announced his arrival with more than $3 million in campaign contributions spread among Illinois politicians, including some who also worked at state agencies overseeing coal mines.
Cline bet he could sell Illinois coal to power plant owners in the U.S., China and Europe for less than what competitors in Wyoming and Appalachia charged. Foresight’s mines cut costs by relying on longwall mining, a process that uses robotic equipment to shear massive swaths of coal from underground seams.
Wall Street investors plowed millions into the company and encouraged Cline to take Foresight public in 2014.
Cline’s gamble paid off, making him a billionaire and one of the wealthiest Americans. Before he died in a helicopter crash last year, he bought private jets, islands in the Bahamas and a pair of luxury yachts he dubbed “Mine Games.” He dated former model Elin Nordegren, the ex-wife of golfer Tiger Woods, and donated millions of dollars to West Virginia universities.
Some of the costs of Cline’s success are documented in the files of financial, environmental and workplace safety regulators:
Five of the 16 Illinois miners killed on the job since 2008 worked at Foresight’s Sugar Camp mine in Franklin County. The injury rate at Sugar Camp exceeded the national average at times during the past decade and met criteria for more stringent monitoring by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Unable to extinguish a fire at its Deer Run mine in Montgomery County, Foresight idled operations for more than four years. The company later won approval for a new underground portal and resumed production last year.
The U.S. EPA’s compliance tracker shows all four of the company’s mines have exceeded limits on pollution dumped into nearby waterways.
Farmland above the mines is contaminated by runoff from waste piles and slurry lagoons. In public financial documents, the company acknowledges that portions of privately owned land have sunk after miners pulled equipment out of underground chambers and allowed them to collapse, an intended feature of longwall mining.
Less than a year after he turned Foresight into a publicly traded company, Cline sold a majority stake to Murray, an Ohio coal baron behind multiple lawsuits seeking to overturn environmental and safety regulations.
Navigating the transition
The handful of Illinois mines still operating generally pay well compared with other nearby employers. They also pay taxes that support local schools and government services.
In Springfield and Washington, industry supporters continue to propose legislation that would require the use of coal to generate electricity, weaken renewable energy mandates and eliminate environmental protections.
Other options are in the works from Pritzker, environmental groups and labor unions. While the plans are still in draft form, they call for a sustained push toward cleaner energy and include programs to prepare fossil fuel workers for renewable energy jobs.
Megan Beeler, an elected official from coal country, said state leaders have so far done little to help local communities navigate the transition. Some former miners have moved away or found other work, she said, lamenting the promise of robust retraining programs is dimmed by the steep drop in state tax collections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is something we’ve been dealing with for at least 40 years,” Beeler, the longtime chair of the Montgomery County finance committee, said in an interview. “Even if you mine coal during the day, you probably farm at night or work another job. We know all too well that coal isn’t forever.”