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The Coal-Corn Divide: Colliding Treadmills in Rural Community Energy Development


  • We are grateful to the Dudley Smith Foundation for its support of this research. We are also grateful to the National Science Foundation who provided resources for reanalyzing findings under the project “Infrastructure Resilience in the Context of Biofuel Development” (NSF# 0835982). We are equally grateful to Gary Letterly and Anne Silvis for their assistance in carrying out this research and developing this article. Last, but by no means least, thanks to Cameron (Khalfani) Herman for his work in making the final editorial and formatting touches to this article.


The emergence of concerns about “peak oil,” the fallout from the Iraq War in terms of renewed calls for “energy security,” and the development of new technology to gain access to fossil fuels and gas long off-limits because of economic and environmental concerns has led to a boom of multiple kinds of energy development in and around rural communities in the United States. This article uses the lens of treadmill-of-production and growth-machine literature to understand these developments in south central Illinois, an area with rich farmland and a history of underground coal extraction. While this analysis finds the expected support from community elites for renewed coal extraction, despite health and environmental risks, we find that the farm community, concerned about damage to land critical for producing corn and beans, profitable at historical levels in part because of the biofuel boom, formed a strong opposition movement. In short, we find evidence of colliding treadmills of energy production. The findings have implications for the analysis of rural energy production in the United States and beyond.