Plans for a $1.3 billion plant that would convert Illinois coal into synthetic natural gas are moving ahead now that two energy companies have pledged to buy much of the gas, officials announced Thursday.

Ameren Corp. and Nicor Gas Inc. reached 20-year deals with project developer Power Holdings LLC to buy roughly two-thirds of the gas produced by the plant, which promises nearly 1,500 jobs about two-thirds of them in construction and new markets for Illinois coal.

Power Holdings now can begin lining out private financing for the project, with construction likely to begin next year on 170 acres of farmland just east of Waltonville in Illinois’ Jefferson County, Power Holdings president Bob Gilpin said.

The plant, using technology known as coal gasification, could be running by 2010 or 2011, provided it gets an air permit it is seeking from the state, he said.

“This is huge news because a project of this magnitude cannot be financed without long-term offtake agreements,” Gilpin said. Prospects of arranging financing “are hard to handicap, but we couldn’t be anywhere without this.”

St. Louis-based Ameren serves 1.2 million customers in southern and central Illinois. Nicor Gas, based in Naperville, Ill., near Chicago, has more than 2 million customers in 641 northern Illinois communities.

Power Holdings expects to produce about 50 billion cubic feet of the synthetic gas a year, equating to about 5 percent of Illinois’ demand, Gilpin said.

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