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Energy Project: The quest for clean coal

A semitrailer unloads coal at the SIU Power Plant.

Monuments, museums, festivals and celebrations herald coal’s contribution to making Southern Illinois a prosperous place to work and live. The Old King Coal Festival today will wrap up its 75th annual celebration, which honors coal miners and reminds us of the coal industry’s importance to the region.

Rep. John Bradley of Marion co-sponsored legislation this past week — similar to bills proposed in past legislative sessions — that would create a state fund to support the use of scrubbers on coal-burning power plants (which would reduce emissions) and would require utilities to enter purchasing agreements with “qualified clean coal facilities.”

“We believe Illinois coal is part of the solution for energy,” Bradley said Tuesday at a news conference announcing the legislation.

Except that his bill wouldn’t really create that state fund. It’s more of a plan to create a plan than anything else. Simply stated, it "authorizes” the Illinois Commerce Commission to find a way to fund scrubbers. No problem. At a cost of nearly $250 million each and few other financial priorities in the state, the ICC should have no problem.

An end to K-12 funding proration … or scrubbers?

Funding higher education beyond the 31 percent allotment approved a few weeks ago … or scrubbers?

$700 million for human services … or scrubbers?

A little recent history on the coal industry: Peabody, the world’s top private coal mine, declared bankruptcy last month. American Coal announced its most recent round of layoffs in February, when it laid off 101 employees. A week before that, Alliance Resource Partners LP announced layoffs at Hamilton and White county coal mines. Peabody laid off 75 people from its Arclar Mine Complex near Harrisburg a week before that.

Occupational employment estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that in 2015, Illinois employment in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction was down to less than 10,000. Across the entire United States, coal mining now employs fewer than 57,000.

On Saturday, the Old King Coal Festival hosted a rally of the “Coal Miners Movement” at its main stage. The newly formed advocacy group, whose slogan is “Make coal great again,” seeks to support laid off coal miners. Make coal great again. We wonder where they came up with that motto?

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Southern Illinoisans are wounded by the decline of the coal industry. We understand. But there is a finite amount of coal. No one disputes this. At some point, coal jobs in Southern Illinois will go away entirely. Your legislator cannot — or will not — admit that.

Deep down, we all know it is true.

We admire the Coal Miners Movement’s dedication to advocating on behalf of unemployed coal miners. We applaud any legislator’s genuine attempt to support people in his or her district.

The loyalty to coal is more than understandable. It put food on our tables for generations, ensured children had presents under the Christmas tree and served as the foundation for nearly every Southern Illinois community. Our ancestors were trailblazers who risked and lost their lives venturing into the darkness to keep their families fed.

But the question we have to ask now is, are we truly made of the same mettle they were? Do we have the courage to move on? Or do we cling to what’s safe while the region becomes lost in the shadow of progress? Let’s choose to look forward.

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