by Dwyer Gunn, Pacific Standard
In the first half of the 20th century, coal communities across the Illinois Basin boomed. In 1990, new regulations set off an industry implosion, and the vitality of the region went with it.
Between 2008 and 2016, national coal production dropped by approximately 37 percent, a decline that analysts have attributed to both environmental regulations and competition from cheap natural gas and alternative energy sources. In last year’s presidential election, small coal towns across the country voted overwhelmingly for the presidential candidate who promised, in no uncertain terms, to put coal miners back to work. Southern Illinois was no exception. In the 14 coal-producing counties in Illinois, Donald Trump won 61 percent of the vote.
Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, a trade organization representing the state’s coal companies, is optimistic about the industry’s prospects under the Trump administration. Unlike in the Appalachian region, where extraction costs have been increasing in recent years, Illinois still has an ample supply of cheap, easy-to-extract coal. In fact, the state’s coal industry has experienced a recent resurgence as more power plants have installed the anti-pollution technology required to burn Illinois coal: Between 2010 and 2015, production increased from about 33 million tons to 56 million tons. Gonet expects further production increases in the coming years as more plants consider turning to the state’s lower-priced coal. “Trump’s going to stop the bleeding,” Gonet says. “Coal is not going away, at least in the next 20 years.”
But even if the industry does increase output, it will likely not be accompanied by the well-paying jobs and economic prosperity that coal towns desperately need. Technological advancements have dramatically reduced the manpower required to produce each ton of coal. “It used to be that in each coal-loading unit, there was about 15 men,” McReynolds says. “When we changed over to continuous mining, they could do with eight men. Then they went to long-wall mining—it’s all technology. And it used to be that, when you were hired in, the mine lasted 30 years. You had a job for life.” In 2015, Illinois managed to produce 91 percent of its 1990 output with only 41 percent of its 1990 workforce.
Bartolotti is well aware that the chances of sustained industry growth are low. “You drive up north to Peoria, you see these massive wind farms,” he says. “They’re supplying the system now. Or you see the power plants that have made the switch to natural gas. I don’t think they’re switching back.” Along with other mayors and leaders in the region, he is focusing on luring different industries to southern Illinois with tax incentives. Progress is slow. “You may try 20 businesses before you get one to succeed,” he says. “I don’t have the answers, but I know one thing: We need help. If we cannot get federal and state support in rural America … these towns are just dying out here.”
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