Chicago’s “clean coal” lie

August 11, 2011

Dan Russell looks at plans to open two new supposedly "clean" coal plants in Illinois--and why the cost to workers and the environment is too high.

CHICAGO'S THIRD coal plant isn't about "green jobs" or "clean power," but propping up the dirty and destructive coal industry, rather than investing in proven renewables like wind and solar.

Chicago already has the prestige of being the only large city in the U.S. with a coal power plant within its boundaries. Actually, it has two.

Apparently not satisfied with that, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation on July 13 that brings us one step closer to a new "clean coal" gasification plant on Chicago's already heavily polluted South Side. Soon after, on August 3, Quinn approved another bill for a "state of the art" gasification facility in Jefferson County at the southern end of the state.

Quinn vetoed similar legislation in January following an outcry by consumer, environmental, and community groups, but he claims that the new bill contains consumer protections that would cap increases to residential customers' gas bills to 2 percent per year. Of course, over 30 years, that works out to an 80 percent increase. With wages stagnant and the economy shedding jobs with no end in sight, these incremental price increases will be devastating to working-class families.

The Fisk Generating Station towers over the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago
The Fisk Generating Station towers over the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago (Carlyn Crispell)

The governor couched his support for the plants under the false rhetoric of "good jobs, clean energy and national security". A press release from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency quoted Quinn as saying, "Projects that create jobs and protect consumers strengthen our continued economic recovery. This project protects Illinois consumers, while continuing our position as a leader in clean energy technology by utilizing home grown resources to create the jobs of today and tomorrow."

Supporters claim that each project will create 200 permanent jobs, along with more than 1,000 temporary construction jobs. However, those "permanent" jobs will be inherently dangerous--putting workers in constant contact with coal and petroleum coke, both of which contain a plethora of toxins that pose significant health risks.

As these products are shipped in by barge or rail, they will poison both the surrounding area and communities. While the area is desperate for jobs, many residents aren't convinced that new polluters are the solution.

GASIFICATION IS a process by which a synthetic natural gas is created from a dirtier fuel like coal through subjecting it to extreme heat and pressure. Unfortunately, much of the technology involved is both expensive and unproven. The Chicago plant is slated to cost over $3 billion and the Jefferson County plant approximately $2.3 billion.

In neighboring Indiana, Duke Energy Corp is under attack for skyrocketing construction costs at a similar gasification plant. Projected costs there increased by over $1 billion--50 percent above initial estimates--which taxpayers are now on the hook for. A regulatory agency received reports that the company's actions "constituted fraud, concealment and/or gross mismanagement," putting the future of the plant in question.

The energy industry maintains that synthetic natural gas not only burns cleaner and with fewer greenhouse gases than coal, but its carbon dioxide emissions are also more easily captured and stored.

If that sound too good to be true, it's because it is. While the plants in question are supposed to capture between 85 and 90 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions through a process known as carbon sequestration, this technology has only recently been implemented and the long-term effectiveness, side-effects and other dangers are unknown.

The process involves pumping the concentrated carbon dioxide--a highly poisonous gas--into underground rock formations or even dying oil wells, where it is then used to force up the last of the crude oil. An underground gasification plant in Queensland, Australia, was recently ordered to close by the government after it was revealed that the process had been leaking toxic chemicals into groundwater.

Coal mining and tar sand extraction--which will provide raw materials for the plants--are themselves incredibly dangerous and destructive processes both for workers and the ecosystem. While it may be true that hundreds of new mining jobs will be created and a new mine may even be opened in order to retrieve millions of tons of coal every year, these miners will face the same unsafe, unfair conditions as those providing coal to traditional plants.

Illinois has huge untapped reserves of wind energy that, as part of a national strategy, could begin to displace fossil fuels. However, that might not happen for decades if environmental activists are convinced to support the supposed lesser-evil of "clean coal." Likewise, such plants will only further entrench the fossil fuel industry into our communities.

Clean coal is a "green" facade for an industry that has been destroying ecosystems and pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere decades. Illinoisans still have time to stop these plants and at the same time contribute to a movement that can demand that we immediately start on the path to a renewable and sustainable energy future.

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