The Prairie State Energy Campus smokestack towers 700 feet above the rolling farm fields and pastureland that stretch for miles in all directions near Lively Grove.
Dense plumes of cotton-white steam gush from the smokestack, billowing lazily into the late October sky from the $5 billion state-of-the-art coal-fired power plant, whose first 800 megawatt generator came online in June.
If the federal government is conducting a so-called "war on coal," as Republican candidates nationwide are declaring this year, Prairie State and the coal mine across the road stand as a shining, if rare, victory for Southern Illinois' most iconic industry.
The future of coal and other energy concerns have become major themes in the race for Congress in Illinois' 12th Congressional District between Republican Jason Plummer, Democrat Bill Enyart and Green Party candidate Paula Bradshaw.
Last month, Plummer and John Shimkus, the GOP incumbent in the neighboring 15th District, where Prairie State sits in Washington County, vowed to boost Illinois' coal industry by supporting the "Stop the War on Coal Act" -- a set of House measures aimed at rolling back the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate carbon-dioxide, the major greenhouse gas blamed by some for global warming.
Voters "must send someone to Congress who is not ambivalent about coal, and that person is Jason Plummer," Shimkus said. "You must be 100 percent behind the coal industry if you want to save these jobs."
The largest coal-fired power plant built in the United States in more than three decades, Prairie State has been coming online at a time when dozens of other coal-fired plants across the nation have closed and dozens more are expected to be shuttered -- the victims of aging equipment, much-tougher EPA air quality rules and the shale gas boom that's sent natural gas prices plummeting.
At Waller's Market, located a mile east of Prairie State, business is good, owner David Waller said. "We have a lot of miners come in for lunch."
Word is out that the mine, which is run by the same consortium of nine utilities that own the power plant, plans to hire more miners.
Mark Gill, who began his career as a Prairie State coal miner 18 months ago after 25 years at a tire factory, said the new mine has reversed the exodus of young people who've left for jobs elsewhere.
The promise of good-paying jobs is luring them back, enabling them to buy houses and start families here.
"It's good for the area," Gill said.
Friend of 'King Coal'
The three candidates in the 12th District race are seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, who is retiring after 24 years.
During his years in office, Costello proved time and again that he was one of the Southern Illinois coal industry's best friends in Washington.
Plummer, 30, a Fairview Heights real estate developer, hopes to inherit Costello's mantle as a best friend of "King Coal," the nickname locals give to the coal industry that employs many in the region.
Plummer noted that when President Barack Obama came into office four years ago, coal fueled nearly half of America's electricity production. Now coal accounts for less than 35 percent of it, he said.
"That's a substantial movement away from coal," Plummer said. "And it's really frightening because you need a broad-based, low-cost energy supply. Coal provides that."
Also positioning himself as coal's friend is Democratic nominee Bill Enyart, 63, a Belleville lawyer who retired in June with the rank of a two-star Army general as commander of the Illinois National Guard.
Enyart has received the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America, the union representing most of the state's coal miners.
Enyart said he, too, wants to push hard for the development of Illinois' vast coal reserves while acknowledging his concern about human-made climate change.
"Coal has been an important part of our energy mix for generations and will continue to be for many years," he said. "We should look for ways to continue to invest in technologies that make coal viable as an energy source for generations to come."
Enyart wants Congress to bring a technology called coal liquefaction to Southern Illinois.
"Liquefied coal burns cleaner and can be produced cheaper than petroleum-based fuels, and a coal-to-liquid facility will take advantage of the millions of tons of coal we have right here in Southern Illinois," he said. "That will mean more safe, well-paying mining and research jobs, in addition to the thousands of people who will build and operate the facility."
While Plummer and Enyart portray themselves as friends of coal, Green Party candidate Bradshaw seeks to portray herself as coal's nemesis.
Bradshaw, 59, wants to see America kick its addiction to coal and other fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. She is pushing for the investment of billions of federal dollars in a "Green New Deal" that will create thousands of new jobs with the construction of solar and wind energy projects.
Bradshaw -- in contrast to her two opponents -- also opposes the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which has gained support of both Republicans and Democrats.
The pipeline would stretch 3,000 miles from the tar sands of Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas. It has become a flash point between pro-business conservatives, who say it will create 20,000 new jobs and billions of dollars in state and federal tax revenues, and environmentalists, who argue it will result in the destruction of millions of acres of forest, cause significant water pollution and release billions of tons of new carbon emissions into the atmosphere, accelerating the world's rate of global warming.
"At a certain point you have to say, 'If we're a democracy, why are we being told that we have to destroy our environment for jobs?" Bradshaw said. "Who is it that makes the decisions and why can't we make these decisions ourselves?"
Enyart takes a more pragmatic attitude toward the pipeline.
"While I understand the objections to the Keystone pipeline, the reality is that if we don't take advantage of this oil, China will," he said. "While we have environmental and safety regulations, China does not. The pipeline should go through the standard regulatory and safety approval process, but stopping one pipeline is not a stand-in for a real environmental or energy policy. Therefore I support construction of the pipeline."
Defending coal's future
The Illinois coal industry fell on hard times beginning in 1990, when Congress, under the leadership of President George H.W. Bush, amended the Clean Air Act. The resulting law discouraged power plants from burning the high-sulfur coal that makes up the bulk of Illinois' reserves.
King Coal continued over the last five years to absorb deep hits because of the influx of cheap and relatively clean-burning natural gas. Electric utilities quickly made the switch from coal to natural gas, shutting down almost 100 aging coal-fired plants nationwide since 2010, according to the Sierra Club.
Another critical factor in the switch from coal: an EPA rule finalized this spring that requires coal plants to cut emissions of mercury and other toxins by 90 percent in the coming years.
Prairie State, which relies on a $1 billion supercritical steam generator, emits far less mercury and other pollutants than older, more-conventional coal-fired plants, as well as 15 percent less carbon dioxide per mega-watt.
Nonetheless, when Prairie State's two 800 mega-watt generators are operating at full tilt by next year, serving 2.5 million customers in nine states, the plant will burn 6.5 million tons of coal a year. The Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club contends that will lead to the release of nearly 12 million tons of carbon dioxide annually into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, coal is making a comeback in Illinois and across Appalachia, thanks to booming demand in Asia and Europe. Illinois' coal production rose 13 percent last year, while Illinois mining employment rose 22 percent to 4,400 jobs, state employment figures show.
In addition, the United States is on track to exporting 125 million tons of coal this year -- a record high, and a 171 percent increase since 1981, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
But the boost in exports has stoked environmentalists' fears that the burning of so much American coal overseas will only push the world closer to climate catastrophe.
It's a very real threat for Bradshaw, a threat that the nation and the world can no longer delay dealing with in bold and serious ways.
Bradshaw points to a series of warning signs that she said are impossible to ignore: a September report showing the lowest levels of Arctic Ocean ice ever recorded, the epic droughts in the United States that ruined much of the corn crop in 2012, the fact that 2012 is on its way to being the hottest year in recorded history, continuing a trend of increasingly warmer years over the past three decades.
"There are no jobs on a dead planet," she said.
While Bradshaw has made climate change a core part of her message, her major party rivals focus on the economy and job creation.
Plummer has expressed skepticism that human beings are responsible for climate change. The world's temperatures are cyclical, but "extremely intelligent" people on both sides of the debate disagree on what causes those cyclical patterns, Plummer said.
"But for us to go out and kind of have a knee-jerk reaction to what is potentially just a cyclical trend in the global climate, in the process decimating our economy, costing us jobs and shrinking our research and development and so forth -- it just doesn't make any sense," he said.
Enyart said he is seeking a middle-course solution regarding climate change, a strategy that eschews finger-pointing and focuses on solutions.
"I support a comprehensive environmental plan that strikes the right balance between protecting jobs and preserving our environment, without seeing policy as a false choice between the two," he said. "We need to make more investments in green energy, while also remaining conscious of our current economy."
For Bradshaw, the evidence of climate change's dangers are more than obvious, compelling her to speak out forcefully.
"I'm not going to go gently into the night," she said. "I am raging against it. I don't know if I'm going to do any good. But I'm not going to go gently."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2533.