If it's good business to build a coal gasification plant in Illinois, one will be built.
Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn wisely vetoed legislation that would have authorized the construction of a coal gasification plant financed by mandatory energy purchases by two downstate utilities, Ameren and Nicor.
Quinn vetoed the measure for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that utility customers would have been forced to pay above-market prices for the synthetic natural gas produced by the Chicago-based plant.
In vetoing the legislation, Quinn urged members of the General Assembly to pass a more equitable bill that would allow for the plant's construction.
Quinn's veto was right on the money, but his advice falls a bit short of satisfactory.
Here's our suggestion: Quinn and legislators should absent themselves from the debate, and backers of the proposed plant should rely on market forces to finance the proposed $3 billion project to be located on the South Side of Chicago.
Of all the cockamamie corporate welfare schemes ever purchased from state legislators with campaign finance dollars, this has to rank near the top.
The only thing that saved utility ratepayers from being fleeced by private parties through the collusion of their elected representatives is that the Leucadia Corp., the plant's developer, targeted big fish as well as small ones.
Sure, the Citizens Utility Board, the consumers' protector, objected to the special legislation on Quinn's desk, but so did the clout-heavy Illinois Manufacturers Association.
One of the legislation's key provisions provided an obvious sign that this bill was not in the public interest. It required Ameren and Nicor to purchase natural gas from the proposed plant.
Those who sell a good product at a fair rate don't need special legislation ordering consumers to buy it.
In this case, there was no guarantee that the price of the natural gas Ameren and Nicor would be required to purchase would have been reasonable. This country is in the midst of the natural gas boom right now, creating a huge supply that has caused prices to fall. Under the legislation, Ameren and Nicor might have been required to pay three or four times the market rate for Leucadia's natural gas. You-know-who would have been on the receiving end when the utilities passed on the extra costs.
Boondoggles like this are always sold as a positive for society. In this case, backers said the plant would have created thousands of jobs through construction and the purchase of Illinois coal and been a plus for the environment.
As is usually the case when powerful interests push a bill, legislators from both sides of the aisle were happy to go along.
State Sen. Mike Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat, was a co-sponsor of this bill. Republican state Sens. Shane Cultra and Dale Righter both voted yes as the Senate voted 40-10 for this monstrosity.
In the House, state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, the Urbana Democrat, voted in favor, while Republican state Reps. Jason Barickman, Chad Hays and Chapin Rose voted no as the House voted 60-50 in favor of the bill.
Thankfully, Quinn understood the real issues in play and blocked the legislation. It's too much to ask our legislators to apologize for selling out the public interest, but they should at least sustain Quinn's veto.