Writing on the Wall: Illinois EPA Throws in Cards, Plans Re-do for Coal Gasification Power Plant

Sometimes it is important to beat a supposedly dead horse, especially when that horse can make bad legal precedent.  News out of the Illinois EPA (“IEPA”) – acknowledging its issuance of a flawed air permit to a huge proposed coal gasification power plant – shows why. 

As my colleague Ann Alexander has pointed out, this plant would be “a ratepayer-funded, very dirty ‘clean coal’ boondoggle to make expensive synthetic gas from coal that no one needs.”  And in its earlier iteration, it was meant to make expensive electricity by gasifying coal as well.  Breakdowns of the project by my colleagues Becky Stanfield and Henry Henderson can be found here, here, and here.  Despite efforts from some high-powered legislators hell-bent on greenlighting a coal gasification plant promoted by Tenaska for Christian County, the Illinois General Assembly has stayed clear of committing to the colossally bad project, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still dangerously looming. 

So we have been fighting it all along, including filing a challenge to the permits awarded by the state to the “clean coal” plant.  I put clean coal in quotes not just because there is no such thing---but because Tenaska’s rhetoric is particularly off-base, as is the State’s willingness to accept it.

Publicly, plant promoters claimed that the plant will use carbon capture and sequestration to deal with the massive plume of greenhouse gas pollution that would make it a top-10 carbon polluters in the state of Illinois from day 1.  But on the side, they told IEPA that they couldn’t use the technology.  And their air permit from IEPA reflected that reality, which is completely counter to the bill of goods sold to the public.

That is why NRDC and Sierra Club sued to overturn the air permit in front of the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (“EAB”).

In an interesting turn of events after we filed our challenge, U.S. EPA Region 5 Administrator Dr. Susan Hedman took the “extraordinary step” of writing to IEPA and asking the state agency to reconsider its decision rejecting carbon capture and storage as a control for CO2 from the facility.  While we may disagree with her about the promise of “clean coal technology” for Illinois, we’re in agreement that the permit decision was legally flawed.  So IEPA was faced by a knock down brief from us and an impending brief from a highly critical federal agency.  What’s a state agency to do?

We heard an answer today.  IEPA responded to our suit by withdrawing the whole permit.  Basically, the state agency hit the “re-boot” button in response to our claims. So, Tenaska must start the permitting process over.  And we are pretty confident that the only way the plant can survive the process is to actually do what they claimed all along---deal with the carbon pollution.  

Requiring the company to step up and commit to carbon control in a legally enforceable permit may make the plant an even deader horse than it was when, in May, the company announced a switch to making electricity with natural gas.  But until the company officially calls it quits on the air permit, we'll be standing ready to make sure it doesn't try to slip through again...