Power plant rules stoke Illinois fracking debate

The newly released federal plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants triggered a new line of debate Tuesday over whether fracking in coal-rich southern Illinois may be part of the answer.

State Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat who represents an area where mining has been a force for more than a century, believes the Obama administration's draft regulations unveiled Monday will hurt coal-related jobs. The state was given a goal of cutting emissions by one-third from 2012 levels.

Bradley submits that means it's even more important for the state to move forward quickly with hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method known as fracking that uses a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to crack and hold open thick rock formations, releasing trapped oil and natural gas.

Illinois lawmakers last year approved fracking but it can't begin until the state Department of Natural Resources finishes writing rules to implement it, despite environmentalists' concerns the practice could taint groundwater supplies, release trapped methane and pose other public risks.

While the DNR has months to finish the guidelines, Illinois lawmakers insist the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposals to curb carbon dioxide emissions — a pollutant blamed for climate change — could close power plants, raise electricity rates and end jobs — most notably in southern Illinois, where many counties already have high unemployment rates.

“It seems like there's been an ongoing effort by the federal government to make it difficult on local energy producers,” Bradley said. “We need jobs and opportunities for people in our region.”

Others say fracking isn't the way to go.

Calling the EPA announcement overdue, the Illinois Sierra Club's chief, Jack Darin, said it's time to reassess the nation's energy priorities and keep moving toward more renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, insisting “you can't frack your way out of the climate change problem.”

“We can seize the economic opportunities that come with the alternatives,” said Darin, adding that fracking releases trapped methane, which he labeled “a greenhouse gas on steroids compared to carbon dioxide.”

Many utilities across the country in recent years switched from coal to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas for generating electricity, pushing up coal stockpiles at power plants and forcing mining companies to sharply cut production. Coal producers say that's changed in recent months with a rebound in the price of natural gas, which is lower in carbon than coal.

But lawmakers from Illinois and other coal states warned Monday the industry faces a new threat from the sweeping initiative to curb carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fueled power plants by 30 percent by 2030. Each state has a customized target and the flexibility to decide how to reach it.

Almost 49 percent of Illinois' power came from nuclear and 41 percent from coal in 2012, federal statistics show. Wind energy supplied about 4 percent of the state's power and natural gas just under 6 percent, with millions more to be invested on solar power.

That diversity, Darin said, puts Illinois in a favorable position, and some of the state's coal-fired power plants already have added modern pollution controls or switched to natural gas.

All the while, the fracking movement presses on in southern Illinois, where a new drilling interest — Woolsey Operating Co. — plans to build its headquarters in Fairfield, about 120 miles east of St. Louis. Woolsey spent recent years securing rights to drill on thousands of acres in about a half-dozen counties, and “what we see is a big opportunity,” Isaac Woolsey, the owner, told WSIL-TV.

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