Thursday, July 14, 2011

It’s a gas, gas, gas: Chicago to get coal gasification plant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the eco-documentary “The Last Mountain” and discussed the many negatives of coal mining. We know how destructive mining for coal can be and how important it is for our country to move towards clean, green energies. Renewable energies have so many positives and the continued use of nonrenewable so many negatives. Chicago and the state of Illinois is a major player here as we are 5th in the U.S. for coal generation. For those not in the know, we have coal mines in the southern part of our state.


Now, Illinois Governor Quinn would like to move more coal processing even closer to home – East Chicago area to be exact at 115th and Burley Ave, close to the Calumet River. According to this article today, in the SouthtownStar, Quinn has just signed a coal gasification plant bill. The plant would be built on the site of the former LTV Steel Coke Battery plant that shutdown down back in 2001 which now considered a “brownfield” site. Plans to get this plant up and going has been in the works since 2010 with considerable opposition and concerns from environmental groups such as Sierra Club. The project is a proposal by Chicago Clean Energy, a subsidiary of Leucadia National. See this link for a history of this plan.

So what is coal gasification? According to Wikipedia, coal gasification is the process of producing coal gas, a type of syngas–a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen (H2), carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour (H2O)–from coal. So, first off, obviously you still need to mine that coal out of the ground (or destroy the mountain tops) to get it. So, nothing has been “greened” in that step of the process even though in the SouthtownStar article, Quinn called “the plant a ‘clean energy project’ that would convert Illinois coal to natural gas in an ‘environmentally positive way.’” In addition to coal the plant would use coke, an oil refinery byproduct, as feed stock. Well, that doesn’t sound isn’t very “clean or green,” does it? We are still mining and burning coal. Maybe there is some “greenwashing” going on?

In the bill, Leucadia National and Chicago Clean Energy are required to “capture and sequester 85 percent of the plant’s carbon emissions.” Sequestered carbon emissions get stored underground. Well, that sounds better than not capturing them at all and letting all those emissions – also known as “greenhouse gases” go right into the atmosphere, right? After all, we have more than enough of these gases to deal – why would we want to build a plant that increases this?


According to the SouthtownStar article, Tom Mara, an executive vice president with Leucadia and president of Chicago Clean Energy says the plant “would create at least 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs.” This is great! But, green energy can produce jobs too – and ones without health risks.

According to “The Last Mountain” website, wind farms are providing a strong clean alternative to coal with jobs being created. Fact: “The wind Industry operates more than 35,000 turbines and employs 85,000 people in the U.S. – the same number the coal industry employs. In 2009, enough turbines were built to power 2.4 million homes.”

After the plant is completed, what about the cost to residents of the area and workers at the plant in the form of health problems? According to the Sierra Club, the plant will burn waste from oil refineries, which is known to contain heavy metals that cause birth defects and cancer. This is all very familiar as we look back on recent protests by concerned Chicago residents and the Sierra Club to close old coal-fired power plants in Chicago because of mercury exposure. And if you don’t believe the local residents of our city, take a look at the facts from the movie “The Last Mountain” and the health concerns of living near a plant that processes coal.


Governor Quinn states that the Chicago plant “would cost $3 billion to complete, would consume at least 1 million tons of coal annually and would be instrumental in helping the United States become more energy independent. He also hinted that securing a reliable domestic energy supply might trump environmental concerns.” Hmm, well, surely all Americans would be in favor of having a local supply of energy – this is true. But the environmental concerns do not go away – they are still there. I don’t believe they will be “trumped.”

So, are the health and environmental risks worth it? How else could we be spending that $3 Billion? We would be further advancing into the future of green energy by turning a “brownfield” into a “greenfield” instead of “browning it all over again.” Shouldn’t Chicago be taking steps towards the “green” renewable energies of the future instead of holding on the nonrenewable “brown” energy of past? After all, one day that “brown” energy will be gone forever – what will we do then?

Governor Quinn states “We have to be practical and realistic in our country. Ultimately, we have to have energy.” Of course, this is true. We all know this. But are we taking two steps back by not embracing a greener form of energy in Chicago? Chicago has a history of trying to be a “green” city. We have green buildings, green offices, green businesses, green restaurants, green roofs, green homes even the Green Festival now makes a yearly stop here. Where are we at with green energies? Chicago, are we “greenwashing” our “brown” energy?

“The two most abundant forms of power on earth are solar and wind, and they're getting cheaper and cheaper…~ Ed Begley, Jr.
The "Greenwashing" of Coal:  Mr. Coal has an epiphany


  1. The call by some to reduce the use of thermal coal (steam coal) that is mostly burnt for power generation and adds to the greenhouse effect is valid for western countries who may allocate resources and funds to alternative and more greener sources of power. Coal Terminals and additional infrastructure are required in the coal supply chain. Coal reports and coal statistics show developing economies are more likely to increase their investment into & their use of thermal coal & metallurgical coal in coming years because of its affordability and to meet increasing demands for electricity and steel. Ian

  2. The call to reduce the use of coals is valid for western countries but unfortunately, coal statistics show developing economies are more likely to increase their use of coal in coming years because of its affordability and to meet increasing demands for electricity and steel for the coal industry.