MARION — This year's Coal & Mining Expo opened Wednesday at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center.
A meeting of the minds was highlighted by the presence of four CEOs from the nation’s top coal companies — Alliance Coal, Knight Hawk Coal, Peabody Energy and Prairie State Energy — and was bookended by political stumping from the state’s top coal supporters and political hopefuls this fall.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, was the first to take the stage and said unlike others in Washington, “we love coal,” he said of the other Republicans on stage with him. He said though they were on the right track in Washington, they were fighting “an uphill battle” with an unnamed enemy — the political left.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, also spoke about policy, as well as coal.
“Public policy matters in these debates,” Shimkus told the gathering, adding that the tide was shifting in favor of coal and he said President Donald Trump was to thank for this.
Speaking next was Erika Harold, the Republican nominee for Illinois attorney general. She told those in attendance that the last thing Illinois needed was another attorney general who capitulates to environmentalist groups.
After opening remarks from the elected officials, the microphones were turned to the CEOs in attendance. A series of questions was presented to the group by moderator, Franklin County circuit clerk and former coal miner, Jim Muir.
They spoke of the future of their industry — and specifically Illinois coal.
“The pie has gotten smaller,” Kemal Williamson, of Peabody Energy, said of the portion of the energy market coal holds.
Don Gaston, of Prairie State, spoke of the need to get as much done to solve several key problems in the industry — most notably what to do with CO2 emitted during the burning of coal. He said this needed to be done through bipartisan efforts but also during the current administration.
However, Gaston pointed out that there should be less government involved in the business.
“We don’t need government getting in the way,” he said.
Highlighting the need for friendly politics was Joe Craft, CEO for Alliance coal.
“The political side is incredibly important. We want and need a level playing field,” he said, addressing what he sees as unfair subsidies given to clean, renewable energies like solar and wind.
Steve Carter, of locally-based Knight Hawk Coal, also expressed his pleasure with the election of Trump and the rollbacks of environmental regulations. He said this would be been a very different story had the election gone in favor of HIllary Clinton.
“You think we had a war on coal before,” he said, saying that Clinton would have taken Obama-era regulations and ratched them up.
Bringing politics to the fore, the group addressed the question of what was the lasting impact of the Obama administration on their industry.
Craft said the previous administration championed what, to Craft, was the erroneous idea that “expensive” renewable forms of energy could do the same for America that coal-fueled energy has. He said changing this mindset to focusing on “low-cost energy” will make the U.S. competitive in the world market again.
“I think we can make America great again if we can do that,” Craft said, echoing Trump’s popular campaign slogan.
In an interview before taking the stage at the end, Gov. Bruce Rauner expressed support for the general party coal platform of loose regulations and low taxes for the industry.
On stage, he repeated many of his stump favorites — fighting the Madigan machine, lower taxes, imposing term limits, and the war on coal.
Addressing the media before the event started, Craft and Carter both expressed enthusiasm for the current direction Washington is taking in terms of their industry.
“We are certainly glad we have President Trump,” Carter said.
Craft said Trump is in the midst of trying to make things different, which he said is “something (we) should give him space to do.”