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Coal

A steady flow of trucks carries coal from the ICG-Illinois LLC Viper Mine near Elkhart to a power plant in Springfield in 2012. 

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner's pledge to remake state government could include an overhaul of the way Illinois regulates the coal mining industry.

In a situation that has some environmental groups on alert and coal industry supporters applauding, the governor is expected to push for a more streamlined permitting process for companies wanting to extract coal from the ground.

Although nothing formal has been submitted, Rauner has been hinting at a restructuring for months.

"Gov. Rauner is committed to transforming state government. That includes a review of how the state coordinates the regulation of energy production in order to balance both environmental and economic concerns," said Rauner spokesman Lance Trovek.

Coal mining, oil and gas drilling and other energy production in Illinois is overseen by a number of different agencies.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, for example, has an Office of Mines and Minerals. The Department of Commerce and Economic Development has a coal marketing office.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issues permits for water runoff from mines. And, the IEPA monitors air quality from coal-fired generators.

A new report says the current make-up has hampered the state's ability to shape a long-term energy plan.

The report, compiled by Rauner's transition team, notes the fragmented responsibilities have caused challenges as Illinois grapples with aging power plants, tougher emission rules for power plants and the advent of renewable energy.

"The state agencies that manage energy, natural resources, and the environment... operate for the most part in isolation of one another. The lack of coordination and follow through can represent major obstacles for entities seeking to obtain new or renewed permits of all types," the report notes.

Phil Gonet, executive director of the Illinois Coal Association, said he has told Rauner  the key to improving coal regulations is to hire more people to review and process applications.

In one instance, Gonet said an application for a new coal mine in Vermilion County sat idle for 13 months because of a manpower shortage at the Department of Natural Resources. The nearest coal mine in The Pantagraph areas is the Viper Mine near Elkhart in Logan County.

"I'm not sure you need any structural changes there. You just need more resources," Gonet said.

Environmental groups don't disagree with that assessment.

"Its an understaffed department," said Terri Treacy, Springfield representative for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, adding IDNR's manpower problems affect the agency's ability to adequately screen permits.

Nonetheless, environmental groups are cautious but hopeful that Rauner follows through on his pledge to balance the interests of business and the environment.

In September, while he campaigned against Democrat Pat Quinn, Rauner made a point of attending the annual dinner of the Illinois Environmental Council.

"I have not closed the door on the Rauner administration," said Jen Walling, the council's chief lobbyist in the Capitol. "We're just going to have to wait and see what is put forward."

Treacy agreed.

"We want to start off on the right foot," Treacy said. "It's so hard to know what's going to happen."

Some of the changes Rauner pursues could be affected by a recent legal settlement over the permitting of a mine in Fulton County.

The case, which dates to 2007, involved a strip mine in Banner Township.

Under the settlement, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will require earlier public notification of proposed mining operations, more interaction between mine companies and local residents and more information about the proposed operations posted on the IDNR website.

It comes as some coal companies have stepped up their political involvement.

For example, Foresight Energy was among a top contributor to Rauner's inaugural festivities, giving up to $100,000 to help fund the events two weeks ago.

Since 2009, the company has pumped $1.9 million into the campaign funds of Illinois politicians, including $10,000 to Rauner's campaign fund and $12,500 to Rauner's new IDNR chief, Wayne Rosenthal.

For the environmental groups, the next step is to sit down with the administration to scope out their planned changes.

"We're trying to set up a meeting with the new director. We haven't gotten that meeting yet," Treacy said.

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