Knight Hawk Coal’s Prairie Eagle Operation outside of Percy.
bhetzler / Byron Hetzler photos, The Southern
Dr. Tomasz Wiltowski shows a thermogravimetric analyzer that he
uses in his lab at the Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center at
SIU. The equipment measures the weight change of substances, such
as coal, under high temperatures and various pressures.
bhetzler / The Southern File Photo
Dr. Tomasz Wiltowski, director of the Advanced Coal and Energy
Research Center at SIU, discusses the future of coal and
bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern
Dr. Tomasz Wiltowski describes some of his research at the
Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center at SIU.
CARBONDALE — As promised, the Trump Administration reversed federal regulations that are spelling good news for the coal industry, even as its members look to stabilize their numbers.
The year since Trump was inaugurated has been a good once for the coal industry, local experts say. The Illinois Coal Association didn't endorse Trump, but did support his campaign, noting that it was a 'no brainer,' as Hillary Clinton promised to "... put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
"The term I've been using is that it's been a 'regulatory reset'," Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said, "because what the Trump Administration has done is they have undone, by either (divulging) or repealing all of the 'war on coal' regulations that came about from the Obama Administration. Now they haven't done all of them, but quite a few have been overturned, starting with the Stream Protection Rule."
Trump signed legislation overturning the Stream Protection Rule in February 2017, Gonet noted.
"So within month of his presidency, he had started keeping the promises that he made to the coal industry by repealing or revoking some of these regulations that hurt coal," Gonet said.
The next month, he signed an Executive Order that repealed the Clean Power Act.
"What the (Trump-enacted) regulations did was to stop the bleeding, in effect," Gonet said. "In my experience, I've never had a politician keep his promise to an industry like Trump has to the coal industry."
Gonet said for now he is hopeful that the industry will maintain its current standing: there are about 3,074 coal jobs in the state. He doesn't expect that the coal industry will ever return to the golden heydays when it employed 10,000 people and mined a billion tons of coal.
He notes that, in the state, a few more jobs were gained during 2017 than in 2016.
In 2008, the year before Obama took office, some 1.2 billion tons of coal were mined in the United States. In 2016, the country mined some 739,000 million tons of coals, a reduction of almost 40 percent production; in Illnois, that year, companies mined 43.5 million tons of coal.
In 2014, Illinois had 4,000-some coal jobs; at the end of 2017, there were about 3,074 jobs.
"(When Trump was elected) everyone heard that he was going to bring coal back," Gonet sad. "Well, that just can't happen. Because we had too many power plants that went off line because of the mercury rule."
"I kind of caution people to not be too optimistic, because those power plants aren't going to come back on line."
While the state's coal industry might not ever regain the standing it once had, its processors are adept at marketing their coal to other states and other countries, Gonet said, noting that he expected that to continue.
Trump's campaign promise to make coal king again is facing an almost insurmountable wall from the global market economy, another local expert on coal said.
Tomasz Wiltowski heads the coal and renewables energy institute at Southern Illinois University — SIU's Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center — and U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently invited him to serve on the National Coal Council.
"President Trump, through his appointments to key agencies — the U.S. Department of Energy, and under it, the Office of Fossil Fuel and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under the Department of Labor — can have a positive influence on the coal industry and the men and women who mine in it," Wiltowski said.
"I am optimistic that federal investment in the environmentally responsible mining and use of coal, its by-product and carbon utilization, can keep Illinois’ abundant coal reserves a part of America’s energy mix," Wiltowski said. "The job ripple effect in Southern Illinois coal mining communities is important and should not be trivialized."
The vast majority of the coal produced in Illinois is shipped to other states and outside the country, where factories there have scrubbers and other systems that can better process Illinois' coal.