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Fact-check: Downstate Republican blowing smoke with claim Prairie State is nation’s ‘cleanest’ coal plant

Experts cite multiple ways to evaluate which coal plants are the “cleanest” beyond total CO2 emissions. Prairie State ranks nowhere near the top based on any of the yardsticks.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., addresses the crowd at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield in 2019.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.
Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

As Republican were dropping U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis’s name as the next potential rival to run against Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the congressman was in southern Illinois visiting a coal plant that could get shut down if the governor gets his way.

Davis used the visit to criticize the Democratic governor’s support for a sweeping energy plan that could close every coal-fired power plant in Illinois by 2035, an idea opponents say would kill jobs and hike rates.

Davis called on Pritzker to spare the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa, south of East St. Louis. The plant provides power to municipalities in eight states, including a swath of Davis’ 13th Congressional district.

“The municipally owned Prairie State power plant is the cleanest coal-fired power plant in the nation,” he said during his June 18 visit. “The company is actively pursuing and adopting additional carbon sequestration and storage and emissions-reducing technologies, and they should receive support from state and federal agencies for their efforts.”

One of Prairie State Energy Campus’ two power units was selected in 2019 as the site of a U.S. Department of Energy-backed carbon-capture research project slated to be completed by the end of the year. But federal data show the plant has been one of the nation’s 10 biggest emitters of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, a fact recently highlighted by the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

While experts say there are multiple ways to evaluate which coal plants are the “cleanest” beyond total CO2 emissions — which tend to single out power plants producing the most electricity — Prairie State ranked nowhere near the top based on any of the yardsticks we found to measure it.

Davis’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

Not ‘cleanest’ by any major metric

Defining how “clean” a coal plant is depends on whom you ask — and when.

“ ‘Clean coal’ has been this sort of amorphous term that has meant whatever people want it to mean, and it’s changed over time,” said Daniel Cohan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

Before climate change gained significant attention, Cohan and other experts said, coal plants generally were judged on emissions of regulated air pollutants causing smog and acid rain, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

Amid growing concern over climate change, experts said there’s a case for including CO2 emissions in the conversation about which plants are cleanest.

To compare Prairie State’s emissions against other power plants, Cohan pointed us to data published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing how much of a given gas or pollutant power plants emit per unit of electricity generated.

In 2019, the latest year for which data was available, Prairie State Generating Station ranked 169th of 306 coal plants in the nation for CO2 emission rates. Its ranking for its SO2 emission rate was roughly the same.

Prairie State performed better on NOx emissions — placing 37th — but still nowhere near the top.

“By no means is this a clean power plant,” Cohan said. “It’s still a substantial contributor to air pollution and climate change.”

But calling Prairie State the cleanest coal plant in the country “would be absurd,” he said.

“It’s not the cleanest by any reasonable metric,” said Emily Grubert, an energy systems researcher and professor at Georgia Tech.

Our ruling

Davis said the Prairie State power plant is “the cleanest” coal-fired power plant in the nation.

His office did not respond when asked for evidence to back that up.

Experts cite multiple metrics by which to assess how clean a coal plant is. EPAl data show Prairie State does not come out at or near the top based on any of them.

We rate Davis’ claim Pants on Fire!

PANTS ON FIRE: The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. The BGA’s fact-checking service teams weekly with the Sun-Times. Find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories here.

Sources

“Rodney Davis for governor? It sounds more possible by the day,” The Pantagraph, June 23, 2021

“Senate adjourns with no energy deal, but Harmon ‘confident’ one is still near,” Capitol News Illinois, June 15, 2021

Press release, U.S. Congressman Rodney Davis, June 21, 2021

Press release, Prairie State Energy Campus, Sept. 13, 2019

FEED study for retrofitting the Prairie State Generating Station, U.S. Department of Energy, accessed June 23, 2021

“Closing Illinois coal plant would cut pollution but cost some towns that have a stake in it,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 4, 2021

“Coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois a major obstacle to Biden’s push for carbon-free electricity by 2035,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 21, 2021

eGrid plant year 2019 data, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Feb. 23, 2021

Phone interview and emails: Daniel Cohan, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, June 23 & 24, 2021

Email: Emily Grubert, professor of environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, June 23, 2021

Emails: Edward Rubin, professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, June 23 & 24, 2021