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Who Makes Coal Policy in Illinois?

Clue: Who doesn't?

Illinois Issues

November 1979

"Coal"—mining it, using it—is a realm where money, science, and power collide. Writing about how policy is made regarding such an issue is hard. Making it is even harder; I've known able and energetic people who have devoted years of their working lives to get a single sentence added to a state statute. 


This is the fourth part of five. For other articles in the series, see "Illinois coal" on the Energy page.


Illinois coal is a pie with many fingers in it. Depending on how one counts them, there are from 15 to 20 separate agencies, departments, commissions, and committees that have a hand in shaping the state's energy policy in which coal figures so prominently. To that number must be added the various agents of the federal government and a half-dozen trade associations, citizens' groups, and unions, not to mention some two dozen companies that sell, ship, or burn coal and, ultimately, the millions of people whose lives are affected in one way or another—through their air or water, their paychecks or their electric bills—by coal.


If there is a chef presiding over the making of coal policy in Illinois, it is the governor. As chief executive, he officially controls such key agencies as the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals and the Institute of Natural Resources. He also wields veto power over coal legislation passed by the General Assembly and, through his public pronouncements, can exercise power of a less dramatic sort over public opinion.


Pro-coal governor


James R. Thompson is generally regarded as a pro-coal governor. It is a bias common among Illinois governors, none of whom, Democrat or Republican, can afford to ignore a resource of such economic importance to the state. To that extent coal, like agriculture and (until recently) highways, is a nonpartisan issue.


Beginning in 1973, for example, Gov. Dan Walker began a series of policy initiatives aimed at securing for Illinois a share of the bonanza of federal coal conversion funds that was expected to flow to the state following the OPEC embargo. More recently, his successor has had to worry about ways to protect the industry against sagging demand thought to be caused by government regulation and high prices.


Toward that end, Thompson, like Walker, has been an energetic advocate of the various coal conversion schemes planned for the state. In 1977 he vetoed the coal severance tax bill passed by the 80th General Assembly—S.B. 39, sponsored by Sen. Gene Johns (D., Marion)—because the added cost would, he said, further erode the marketability of Illinois coal. He has called for relaxation of federal clean air standards to allow more burning of coal and pushed for amendments to the state's own regulations that would make it easier to legally burn Illinois coal.


Much of the governor's coal program is as much philosophical as practical. Thompson has earned the enmity of environmentalists and some coal-county activists by moving slowly on H.B. 2548, a bill to implement the 1977 Federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). A spokesperson for one of those groups complained to a subcommittee of the U.S. House in March that Thompson reportedly told a public meeting that he would like to tell the federal government to take the SMCRA and "do you-know-what with it." It is an opinion shared by the coal industry, to be sure, but the remark may also have been prompted by almost constitutional resentment felt by Republicans toward what they regard as federal interference in state affairs.


Politics shapes policy, of course; Thompson is a Republican, and the coal industry is a part of the party's natural business constituency. But sometimes politics is mistaken for policy. A protracted wrangle in 1974 over creation of a new coal development commission for the state was complicated by legislators' reluctance to cede its control to a governor, Dan Walker, they despised.


In a somewhat different case, Thompson's recent attacks on federal clean air rules (expressed most forcefully in July in his "little more dirt in my lungs" speech to the National Urban League in Chicago) seem to have been calculated for their political effects. Cynics in the bureaucracy note that Thompson's complaints seem to be addressed more to a national audience than an Illinois one and may have more to do with the 1980 national elections than Illinois coal policy. In any event, there has been no indication of any major policy shift in the agencies under the governor's control.


Governors do not make coal policy alone, of course. In fact, the cabinet and sub-cabinet agencies may be said to run a governor as much as he runs them, at least to the extent that he is often dependent on them for information and advice. Of the several members of this "permanent government" which have a say in coal policy, the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals (IDMM) is one of the most important. It is the only cabinet department dealing with coal, having been organized in 1919 to administer the new state Coal Mining Act; it has since also been made responsible for administering the federal surface mining act in Illinois. The department is run by Bradley N. Evilsizer, who was appointed to the job in 1977 after careers with the mining technology department of Rend Lake College, Ina, and before that, the Freeman Coal Company.


Mines and Minerals


Officially, the IDMM is a regulatory agency which has little formal say in initiating policy. A good example is its role in the state's surface mining land reclamation act which passed the General Assembly this June but has not yet been signed by the governor. H.B.2548, sponsored by Rep. A. T. McMaster (R., Oneida), sets up a permanent state regulatory program as required by the new federal law. The bill was drafted outside the IDMM, even though the department has been designated the official enforcement agency. Instead, the department mainly served as what one participant has called "a glorified secretary" in the process of hearings, revisions, and amendments that followed. As usual, the IDMM's contribution was largely technical. (It has administered the state's own reclamation law since 1969.)


This is not to say, however, that the department lacks influence. Because of its pivotal position between state government on the one hand and mine owners and unions on the other, and because of the close working relationship it has evolved with all three groups, the IDMM perceives itself as a consensus-finder, the agency that "brings all these people to the table to talk," as one department official has put it.


Usually the IDMM invites to its table the Illinois Coal Association and the Coal Producers Association of Illinois (representing coal owners) and the United Mine Workers and the Progressive Mine Workers of America (representing coal diggers). Occasionally the department expands its guest list, as when it solicited comment on the permanent reclamation program from environmentalists, farmers, and the general public as well as the industry and unions.


Because of its role as consensus-maker, the IDMM is presumed by the rest of state government to speak for more than itself. Department officials insist (generally without contradiction) that it is impossible to implement major coal legislation unless it has been endorsed by the IDMM. A recent report on an unsuccessful reorganization proposal in the General Assembly bears out this view ("Energy Reorganization in Illinois: Agency and Clientele Influence," Albert J. Nelson, Kenneth E. Mitchell and Leon S. Cohen. Legislative Studies Center, Sangamon State University, Springfield).


The authors cite a 1977 House proposal tacked on to energy reorganization bill S.B. 1142, sponsored by Sen. John J. Nimrod (R., Park Ridge). The House proposal, which would have made IDMM part of a new Department of Mines and Energy, included an amendment transferring mined-land reclamation authority to the Illinois Department of Conservation. Environmentalists had argued that the IDMM "was too closely identified with the mining interests to effectively regulate reclamation." The amendment was defeated on the House floor after extensive lobbying against it by the department, the industry and the unions. During the debate, the study notes, "miners lobbied the Democratic side of the House, while the coal operators lobbied the Republican side. The authors describe the campaign as "a clear example of clientele who disagreed among themselves rallying behind 'their' agency." The issue wasn't really who was going to administer the reclamation program, the study concluded, but how stringently it would be administered. As the authors note, "policy and structural issues are often intimately connected, and . . . the underlying determinant is the pattern of the agencies' clientele relationships."


Regulation and promotion


The question is sometimes asked whether the IDMM is truly impartial in its role as mediator of the state's coal interests. Nelson, Mitchell, and Cohen conclude that established agencies such as the IDMM are usually "captured" by their clientele, in this case mine owners and unions. Though the department is charged with regulating the coal industry and not with promoting it, it is IDMM policy to encourage the opening of new mines by cooperating with mining interests. Evilsizer has said he sees no conflict between the two roles, but some observers outside the industry are not so sure.


For example, in May the IDMM filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia requesting a judicial review of the regulations adopted by the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining under the 1977 federal surface mining act (SMCRA). The department claimed that some of the regulations covering state permanent regulatory programs are inconsistent with the federal act, are technically unsound or discriminate unduly against the Illinois coal industry.


The IDMM asserts (along with Gov. Thompson) that the suit is merely an attempt to resolve differences between state needs and federal demands and does not signal any intention by the state to shun its responsibilities under the SMCRA. However, skeptics like the Illinois South Project, a southern Illinois coal community activist group, perhaps noting that the national coal industry has filed similar suits, see the IDMM suit as another of what it regards as the Thompson administration's "continuing efforts to shirk its responsibilities for implementing the federal law in a meaningful way."


Of course, the governor gets advice on coal from more than the IDMM. When he first took office, for example, Thompson relied on an "energy sub-cabinet" made up of the directors of the IDMM, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), the Illinois Institute for Environmental Quality (IIEQ), the Department of Business and Economic Development (IBED), and the chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Of all these voices, though, it is generally reckoned that the one Thompson has listed to most attentively belongs to Frank Beal. Beal is the ex-planner and former head of the IIEQ whom Thompson named to run the state's new Institute of Natural Resources (IINR) formed when the governor merged by executive order the IIEQ, the state's geological and water surveys, the state museum, and IBED's division of energy in 1978.


IINR's strong director


The IINR has a multifaceted mandate, if not a contradictory one. Its tone is environmentalist, which reflects Beal's own priorities, yet it also is responsible, through its management of the coal bond fund program it inherited from IBED, for pushing coal conversion technologies that most environmentalists abhor. Beyond its somewhat confused focus, the agency is so new that it does not yet have a well-defined constituency among either the public or the General Assembly as does the IDMM or the IEPA.


In the meantime, it is widely assumed that whatever clout the IINR enjoys in policy circles it owes to the person of its director. Beal rejects the title of the governor's man on coal, though he is virtually the only person in coal circles who does. Beal was one of the people who advised Thompson during the controversy that arose when the United Mine Workers (UMW) asked Thompson to ban imports of western coal to Commonwealth Edison's Powerton generating station in 1978. Beal negotiated the agreement between the state and Allis-Chalmers for state help in that firm's KILNGAS coal conversion project. And Beal oversaw the drafting of H.B. 2548, the legislation which spelled out the state's implementation plan for the federal surface mining act.


It is certainly true that the governor, any governor, must balance a bagful of interests when he considers coal matters. Coal is not a tidy issue, spilling as it does across economic, political, and bureaucratic boundaries. But echoes of Beal's irritation with lack of coherence and method in federal energy policies can be heard in many of Thompson's complaints on the same subject.


Many of those complaints have to do with environmental rules that have become the coal industry's bete noire in the years since 1970, and most of those rules are administered by the IEPA. Because of this, the IEPA is among the agencies playing a major part in making coal policy in Illinois.


The IEPA and the coal industry collide mainly over the agency's enforcement of clean air standards. The 1970 federal Clean Air Act and its 1977 amendments limit the amount of noxious by-products from coal combustion that may be allowed into the state's air—and thus determine how, and how much, Illinois coal may legally be burned.


Clean air rules have been described as the single biggest reason why the Illinois coal industry is in the doldrums. Indeed, coal industry spokesmen describe the IEPA as coal's Public Enemy No. 1. This is in part because the industry finds the agency impractical and cluttered in red tape—a complaint some in the agency concede—and in part because of the technical nature of the regulations themselves.


The IEPA is run by Michael Mauzy, a Thompson appointee who has a good reputation among many of those he works with, if for no other reason than they find him less a bureaucrat than some of his predecessors.


But whereas the administrative style of such older agencies as the IDMM is often shaped by its clients, and that of new agencies such as the IINR often reflects the personality of its director, both the style and substance of the IEPA is set in Washington. In a sense, one does not run the IEPA so much as preside over it.




One senior Illinois official outside the agency dismisses the IEPA as little more than a field office for the USEPA. It is true that the state agency stops much of the flak that is, or should be, aimed at its parent in Washington. To cite just one of many possible examples: the Illinois Pollution Control Board may grant variances from state air pollution laws (which apply to emission sources built before 1972 or to certain small sources) if the IEPA requests them; it may not, however, grant variances from the stricter federal New Source Performance Standards that apply to all major new sources even if, as sometimes happens, IEPA thinks such variances would cause no significant deterioration of the state's air quality. The range for discretion left to the state agency by Washington is increasingly small, and this contributes to the agency's reputation for intransigence.

Even in those areas where the IEPA retains a relatively free hand, some industry people and legislators sympathetic to them have complained that the state regulations designed to bring the state into compliance with federal ambient air quality standards are stricter than necessary, or that the IEPA enforces them with more enthusiasm than absolutely necessary.


Egged on by industry and union lobbyists, legislators last winter introduced no fewer than five bills to force reductions in state standards to be relaxed to the minimum allowed under federal law. Most of these bills were political gestures—they were either in violation of the Clean Air Act or, if implemented, would have made it impossible to open new factories and power plants in the future in many areas of the state. What they did indicate was a growing concern that coal policy in Springfield was being made not in the statehouse but in the hostile environs of IEPA's Churchill Road headquarters.


In their defense, IEPA officials point out that agency rules are not the severe impediment to Illinois coal use they are sometimes said to be. They acknowledge that enforcement of the Clean Air Act led some utilities to switch to cleaner-burning western coal. But the economic impact of the switch, they say, is nearly over. Because they must meet federal emission ceilings that require scrubbing equipment, new coal-burning plants will be able to burn Illinois coal.


In fact, in a 1977 report, the IEPA claimed to have "worked diligently with the Illinois coal-burning industry to lessen the economic impact of air pollution regulations." The IEPA sought more flexible rules from the Pollution Control Board (PCB), extended compliance deadlines, allowed temporary use of taller smokestacks, and granted variances. These measures, the agency said, made it possible to burn 14 million tons more Illinois coal in the state than would have been possible otherwise.


IEPA's immunity


The IEPA, then, is not entirely immune from the usual pro-coal biases of state government. It is true, however, that it is more immune than any of the other agencies and officials who share responsibility with it for coal policy. There are several reasons for this. The agency's mandate comes from the federal, not state, government. Its constituency is large but diffuse, so that agency actions cannot easily be interpreted (and thus dismissed) as benefiting any vested interest. No statewide politicians can afford to be perceived as anti-environment, so attacks on the agency are moderated. The rules the agency enforces are set by the PCB, which probably is as independent of partisan influence (both political and economic) as it is possible to be in Illinois government. Thus, when people complain that the IEPA does not play by the accustomed rules, that the IEPA is "arrogant," as a commonly heard word has it, they are paying what is, in terms of the agency's mission, a compliment.


The General Assembly


Along with the governor, the Illinois General Assembly matters the most when it comes to coal. Not only does the General Assembly pass coal law (with, and sometimes without, the cooperation of the governor), but it is the principal forum where coal issues are debated and the arena where contending claims from coal interest groups are brokered by legislators acting as surrogates of those interests.


In the past, for example, deep-mining interests periodically would induce a sympathetic legislator to introduce a bill regulating strip mining, which was then considered unfair competition to deep mining. The United Mine Workers' man would vote for it, because most of their members worked below ground. The farmers' man would vote for it to protect the farms. The Progressive Mine Workers' man would vote for it (according to at least one account) to bedevil mine owners. The strip-mine operators in turn protected their interests by appealing to the self-interest of legislators. James D. Nowlan and Janet Koran, in an unpublished monograph titled, "Coal v. Corn: The Politics of Strip-mining Reclamation in Illinois," describe many land reclamation bills in the 1930s as classic "fetchers." As one union leader put it to the authors: "It was cheaper to spend a few thousand dollars to get several key guys to kill bills than it was to carry on massive public relations programs."


Things have changed in the last 40 years. No one openly buys votes the way they used to, and massive public relations programs are now the rule. Lobbying is now more sophisticated, and the cast has changed to include environmentalists, farmers, and county officials.


But though making laws about coal has become much more complicated, certain aspects of the process have changed little. Some votes are still cast in behalf of the interests to whom lawmakers are politically beholden, or for the side they sympathize with ideologically. The key question is still: "Who's got the votes?" And getting the votes still means lobbying.


A few legislators have developed their own expertise in certain coal subjects. Rep. A. T. McMaster (R., Oneida) is a farmer well-versed on land reclamation issues. Rep. Michael F. McClain (D., Quincy), chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, successfully shepherded the permanent surface mining regulatory program through the 81st General Assembly.  Sen. Gene Johns (D., Marion) has been a stubborn proponent of a coal severance tax. But most members, lacking that kind of expertise, must allow themselves to be persuaded variously by spokesmen for industry, miners, farmers, or even state agencies. As a result, the General Assembly reflects (albeit imperfectly) the ebb and flow of power among coal's contending champions. For the moment it is anti-clean air laws, anti-severance tax, pro-reclamation (if only because a state bill seems more desirable than a federal one), and it is undecided on minimum coal royalties.


But the General Assembly is more than just a forum. It is a contender (chiefly with the executive branch) for policy power. It was largely to augment that power that the legislature established the Illinois Energy Resources Commission (IERC) in 1974. Among other tasks, the IERC was charged with recommending administrative changes, developing long-range energy planning, and reviewing proposed coal development projects under the Coal Development Bond program.


The IERC is composed of ten legislators and eight public members. Its posture, as it relates to coal anyway, has been pro-coal development. This is a reflection of its membership, which tends to be dominated by energy interests, including southern Illinois legislators. Indeed, the major administrative reform so far advanced by the IERC was, according to Nelson et al, "designed implicitly to insure dominance of developmental over conservation interests." That was the IERC's 1977 proposal to meld several key state agencies, including the Department of Conservation and the IEPA, into a Department of Natural Resources, a "supercabinet"' agency that would handle both energy and environmental issues.


The IERC's role


The proposed merger—H.B. 1122, sponsored by Rep. Joe E. Lucco (D., Edwardsville)—was never seriously considered. In fact, much of the commission's work is not seriously considered, at least among those responsible for making coal policy. (One industry official dismisses it privately as "a waste of taxpayers' money.") This may be because, like the IINR, the IERC is too new to have cultivated much of a constituency. It may also be because many of its responsibilities (particularly those involving research, planning, education, and the drafting of legislation) are already being met by other agencies or by the General Assembly itself. The only coal project over which the IERC exercises unique authority is the Illinois Coal Development Bond program, established in 1974. Under this program, the IERC has authority to issue bonds for projects it deems worthwhile, though the federal government so far has not deemed any of the IERC's favored projects worthwhile, and lack of funding has left the program moribund for the moment.


The IERC notwithstanding, the General Assembly does not so much make coal policy as reflect the policies made by others. Speaking in 1977 to the fifth annual Illinois Energy Conference in Chicago, Sen. Kenneth Buzbee (D., Carbondale) complained about what he called "the traditional reactive role of government" in the development of natural resource policies. Some observers find it significant that no major state policymaker has yet considered the implications two potentially calamitous consequences of the use of coal, acid rain and carbon-dioxide overload in the atmosphere. Whatever the faults of the method—and Buzbee cites shortsightedness as one of them—coal policy in Illinois still depends largely on what group the government is reacting to and how it decides to respond. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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