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Illinois Country Living

John Shimkus
U.S. Congressman Jerry F. Costello (D-IL)


Coal is the Answer, Not the Problem
House cap and trade proposal on track to repeat mistakes

It’s been said that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, and I believe that sentiment gets to the heart of the current debate over “cap and trade” energy legislation being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives. While this legislation has laudable goals and the best of intentions, it will have major ramifications for both the U.S. economy and our regional economy.

I am reminded of a similar debate. In 1990, the U.S. Congress began consideration of legislation to amend the Clean Air Act. The bill aimed to reduce three major categories of pollution: acid rain, urban air pollution and toxic air emissions. While supporting the goals of the bill, I and others from congressional districts with a large coal presence, worked to make the changes in the bill less dramatic for the coal industry.

Regrettably, our views did not carry the day, and the bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate. I was one of only 25 House members to vote against the final bill. As it turned out, our concerns were well-founded. Coal mines closed across Southwestern and Southern Illinois, more than 6,700 miners lost their jobs and the economy of our entire region took an enormous hit.

It’s important to note that I do believe global warming is occurring and that manmade sources of emissions are contributing to the problem. The question is how are we going to address this problem? During my tenure in Congress, I have worked to fund the research and development (R&D) of clean coal technologies that have allowed us to burn coal more cleanly, helping to significantly reduce air pollution over the last 30 years. In addition, I have supported increased funding for the R&D of renewable fuel sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and bio-mass.

However, renewable fuels account for less than 10 percent of current U.S. electricity production, while coal accounts for roughly 50 percent. It’s an acknowledged fact that for the foreseeable future, we do not have a substitute energy source for coal. It’s abundant and inexpensive, providing the reliable, low-cost energy that sustains our economy. The key to any national energy plan is to allow the continued use of coal, burned as cleanly as possible, while further research allows for the greater use of renewable energy and other new technologies.

I am not convinced the current cap and trade bill would allow this to happen. For instance, a key element of the bill is the provision of emission allowances. To ensure the future viability of coal, allowances should be provided free or at a reduced cost to coal-dependent utilities while technology is being developed – particularly carbon capture and sequestration – to meet emissions limits. If this period of time is too short, utilities would be forced to fuel switch or pass along enormous cost increases to ratepayers. Both of these scenarios would have significant economic impacts. An analysis of the bill by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association shows that co-ops in Southern Illinois would fare worse than any district in the country in terms of emission allowances! For this and other reasons, I cannot support this bill.

Just as in 1990, I believe we should be able to draft a bill that achieves important policy goals while attracting broad support. The legislation would have to be more realistic as to how soon we will be able to move away from coal for significant electricity production. Given the state of the economy, no one should be in a hurry to add further pain to consumers. At the same time, a recent court decision has made it clear that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate carbon emissions, and it’s widely assumed that any EPA action on this front will be harsher than legislation.

As we move forward on redefining our national energy policy, I hope we take the opportunity to learn from our past and protect the livelihoods of American families as we protect the environment. Coal and clean coal technologies are the keys to getting us there.


U.S. Congressman Jerry F. Costello (D-IL) serves on several Congressional Committees including the Energy and Environment Subcommittee

The opinions and views of guest commentators are their own and may not represent those of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives or the electric co-ops of Illinois.

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