Illinois' coal gasification bills: the new bridge to nowhere

 Remember the bridge to nowhere?  The earmark-funded bridge in Alaska that was to provide a staggeringly costly way for people to get where they didn’t need to go?  Well, the Illinois General Assembly has one-upped it.  Earlier this month, it was persuaded by coal-industry lobbyists to pass bills supporting two new coal gasification plants to provide overpriced natural gas to Illinoisans when the country is awash in less expensive supplies of it.   As an added bonus, the plants will spew out tons of soot, smog precursors, and global warming pollution – much of it on the south side of Chicago, where residents are already being disproportionately hammered by pollution from the Crawford and State Line coal-fired power plants in the area.

The two General Assembly bills would require Illinois utilities to purchase synthetic natural gas  for the next 30 years from the Leucadia plant on the south side and the next 10 years from the Power Holdings plant near East St. Louis.    Consumer advocate Citizens Utility Board estimates that this scheme could jack up customers’ gas bills by as much as $121 per year.   The bills are currently on Governor Quinn’s desk, awaiting his decision to either sign or veto (NRDC has weighed in strongly encouraging him to veto). 

South side residents are not happy – and not just because their utility bills are about to go through the roof.  As reported last week in the Chicago Tribune, the area already suffers from excessive and deadly industrial pollution from a plethora of nearby sources.  The area is listed as non-attainment for particulate matter (soot) and ozone (smog) meaning that it does not meet EPA-designated safe levels.  Additionally, it contains the highest levels of several toxic pollutants anywhere in Illinois.  The proposed $3 billion Leucadia plant will layer a hefty dose of soot and smog on top of all that.

What is more, the plants will be a significant source of carbon dioxide, a global warming pollutant.  The Assembly bills “require” that the facilities capture and sequester most of their carbon underground.   We need the quotes around “require” because the purported requirement, when you read the fine print, really isn’t one.  In the Power Holdings bill, the penalty for non-compliance is low enough that it is entirely possible the company may choose to simply treat it as a cost of doing business.  And in the Leucadia bill, the company can choose instead of sequestering carbon to purchase carbon offsets, which are often illusory and of minimal environmental value.  In any event, even if they did comply, the amount of carbon dioxide exempted from the sequestration requirement would still be significant.

The plants’ proponents like to point out that pulverized coal burning is more hazardous than coal gasification.  Well, sure it is.  And anthrax is more hazardous than the flu.  But ideally, you would like to avoid either if you could.

And we can.  The fact of the matter is, we simply don’t need these overpriced sources of gas.  They are a solution in search of a problem.  Our country has an abundant supply of natural gas right now.  Making use of it will not drive our utility bills up for the next 30 years, or release the excess global warming pollution associated with synthetic gas production. 

What is more, we have an even better option than that:  using less energy.    NRDC continues to advocate such measures as increasing the efficiency of our gas use by reducing leakage from our buildings and adding insulation to homes, water pipes, and water heaters.  Additionally, we can implement systems that use the sun to produce heat and hot water.  And we can tap into the temperature of the earth as a heat source using geothermal systems, sometimes called heat pumps.

Fortunately, even if Governor Quinn decides to sign the bills – and we fervently hope he does not – the Leucadia plant still faces an additional significant hurdle.  In order to build a polluting facility in a non-attainment area, it is necessary to obtain “emission reduction credits” – proof that compensating sources of pollution have been shut down.   To fulfill that requirement, Leucadia wants to buy credits from a successor to the former operator of a coke plant on the site that was shuttered in2001.  Illinois EPA – mindful of the fact that the point of the requirement is to clean up the air, not allow polluters to cover their rear with decade-old plant closures – refused to allow it.  The holder of the credits has challenged that decision, and the issue is now pending before the Illinois Pollution Control Board.  NRDC has moved to intervene in the case. 

Of course, Leucadia and Power Holdings insist that they have customers’ best interests in mind, and call their projects “clean coal.”  If you believe that, then the General Assembly has a bridge to sell you.