Published on June 6; business story about integrated gasification in the coal industry. Should stand for a couple months without updating.

TAYLORVILLE - There are no models of "integrated gasification combined cycle" units at the Christian County Coal Mine Museum. Maybe someday.


Plans for a $2 billion coal-gasification plant on the northwest side of this community of 12,000 has raised hopes among residents of a resurgence in an industry that once employed thousands in the mining of coal.


The county's last coal mine, Peabody No. 10, closed in 1994.


But a recent announcement at Taylorville City Hall of state approval of a construction permit for the project brought out two sides of a debate that has dogged the Illinois coal industry for two decades - how to cleanly burn one of the nation's most plentiful alternatives to imported oil.


"This is a breakthrough, not only for Illinois, but worldwide. Illinois has a chance to be a leader," Illinois Environmental Protection Agency associate director Ron Burke said after announcing the permit approval.


Burke said approval came only after an exhaustive two-year process that assured the Taylorville plant is "going to be one of, if not the cleanest, power plants in the world."


The integrated gasification combined cycle technology converts coal to synthetic gas for producing power while eliminating some of the worst pollutants associated with traditional coal-fired plants, such as mercury, soot and smog.


But two of the state's largest environmental groups, the Sierra Club of Illinois and Environment Illinois, issued statements after the press conference warning the project also should include strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant for the purpose of clean-air standards.


"The state is putting the cart way before the horse by moving forward on this plant without having set a statewide carbon-emission-reduction policy," said Rebecca Stanfield, state director of Environment Illinois.


Sierra Club Illinois president Jack Darin also noted the group recently worked out an agreement with City Water, Light and Power of Springfield to offset carbon dioxide emissions from a new power plant.


"If Springfield and their local utility can do it, surely a large corporation like Tenaska can do it," he said, noting that Gov. Rod Blagojevich has set a goal of significantly reducing emissions linked to global warming.


Burke and representatives of Tenaska Inc., the Nebraska energy development company with a 50 percent stake in the Taylorville project, said planners are considering "carbon sequestering," or injecting carbon dioxide into the ground, as one way to eliminate such emissions.


Burke also said the governor remains strongly committed to reducing power-plant emissions of all types.


"We know if we can get this up and running in Illinois, there's potential for other companies to build around the state," he said.


State EPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson said later current rules do not allow the agency to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions. But she agreed emissions linked to global warming would remain an issue for power-plant developments.


"It's something that Illinois remains interested in and concerned about," Carson said.


The prospect of a power plant that backers said would annually burn 1.5 million tons of Illinois coal, while producing more than 600 direct and support jobs, generally has been welcomed in a community where the history of coal mining goes back more than 100 years.


Tenaska executive also are hoping for legislative approval of a bill that would require Ameren and ComEd, the state's two largest utility companies, to sign contracts of up to 40 years for power produced by coal-gasification plants.


Company general manager Bill Braudt Jr. said the legislation is needed to assure a long-term market for electricity produced by the plant. He said the project could continue without the legislation, but it would take longer.


"We all want this to begin as soon as possible," he said, adding that work on the plant could begin by the end of the year and power production in 2012. The 650 megawatts of electricity produced could supply approximately 630,000 homes.


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