Speaking of Coal Power: Illinois Coal Poised for Comeback

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, staged another magical comeback earlier this year — in the ring and at the box office. Just when you think Rocky is down and out for good, the sixth release of the Rocky franchise just may be the best of the lot.

"Down but not out" is also an apt description of coal production from the Illinois Basin. Enactment of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 took a big toll on coal mining in Illinois. Nationwide, power plants had to switch to a lower-sulfur coal — typically from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (PRB) — to comply with the new rule without having to install expensive scrubbers and other emissions controls. Although the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) further restricts SO 2 emissions, it also has the interesting side effect of expanding fuel options beyond PRB coal.

Off the Mat

Appalachian coal fields are depleting rapidly and are showing only incremental increases in production even as coal prices spike. Meanwhile, shipments from the Illinois Basin declined from nearly 160 million tons in 1990 to just over 88 million tons in 1998.

An influential "corner man" may keep Illinois coal from going down for the count. Comments by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the Congressional Record in support of the proposed Coal to Liquids Fuel Production Act noted that "coal deposit underlies more than 65% of the surface of the State of Illinois," with recoverable reserves estimated at 38 billion tons. Obama also said that Illinois Basin coal "promises a renaissance for coal," adding that two east-central Illinois towns are under consideration for the billion-dollar FutureGen clean-coal project.

Second Wind

Some industry observers note a resurgence of interest in the Illinois Basin by reporting that several new mine developers are vetting the region for the right deal. But burning high-sulfur coal in a plant without a wet scrubber has a number of adverse consequences. One is generating an unsightly "blue plume" of sulfuric acid (see COAL POWER, March/April 2007).

The reluctance of some utilities to specify new scrubbers and/or selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems as "sulfur flexible" will preclude many plants from switching to Illinois Basin coal for many years to come. The fuel’s future could hinge on whether enough utilities elbow their way to the front of the line for SCRs and scrubbers early, to meet CAIR deadlines.

Going the Distance

My guess is that Illinois Basin coal will fire a fair share of new supercritical plants (like Peabody Energy’s mine-mouth Prairie State Project) and perhaps other projects nearer the basin itself in coming years.

For Illinois coal, the wild card may be whether the state lands FutureGen later this year, followed by the building of a few good coal-gasification power plants early in the next decade. Remember, Illinois has plenty of empty caverns for sequestering all the nasty CO 2 that clean-coal plants will capture. At one time, the state even considered building a CO 2 pipeline that would span the state from north to south and facilitate transport of the greenhouse gas.

So, how does FutureGen stack up to the competition? Obama has the buzz, and Illinois’ senior senator is majority whip Dick Durbin. Texas has Bush and cronies such as Clay Sell, who worked in the White House from 2003 to early 2005, when he headed over to the Department of Energy as deputy secretary.

Coin toss, anybody?