Take a short drive around our area and witness the legacy of King Coal.
More than a century after the Belleville Gas Light & Coke Co. powered street lights with gas made from coal, the residual mess at West Main Street by Richland Creek is requiring a $35 million clean-up that eventually will show up in all our power bills.
Mounds and deep lakes throughout the area show where strip mines once were.
On the horizon are the massive smokestacks of the coal-fired Baldwin Power plant, one of the top 25 emitters of greenhouse gases in the nation.
On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules on power plant emissions were released. The nation must cut power plant pollution by 32 percent from the 2005 level. Illinois must drop 31 percent from the 2012 level, which would be the same as taking 5.6 million cars off the road.
The rules are seen as a way to encourage alternative energy production, such as wind and solar, which now are about 5 percent of the nation’s energy mix. Coal still represents eight times that, or 40 percent.
Beneath Illinois sit massive energy reserves of coal — about 800 years worth of economically viable reserves at current production levels — that represent 4,200 jobs and energy to create more jobs and more tax revenue. But, like King Midas, we touch it at our peril.
Arguments over cheap coal must be weighed against the costs we can see, costs we may not face for many decades and costs we may never be able to measure.
What we can measure is the cost of China’s coal habit drifting across borders, and our inability to negotiate with them if we are hypocrites concerning greenhouse gases.
Illinois coal reserves are not going anywhere. If we want their riches we will research ways to unlock the energy without leaving an expensive legacy.