- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As nations around the world compete with renewed vigor to find reliable supplies of energy for their growing economies, critics in the United States are competing to see who can find the most fault with our most abundant and affordable source of energy: coal.

The tragic mining accident in Utah and the demands for greenhouse-gas reductions from power plants have fed a gathering storm of misinformation and misunderstanding, partly fueled by the coal industry’s own missteps. Before policy-makers allow these winds to blow the country off its course toward stronger economic security and greater energy independence, it is time to pause and take stock.

America’s coal reserves are the world’s largest, containing more energy than all the oil in the Middle East and generating half of the nation’s electricity. And while coal will never be mentioned in the same breath as our purple mountains’ majesty or our amber waves of grain, America’s enormous coal supply remains a strategic natural resource whose value in the digital age can be as great as it was in the industrial age.

In many ways, the American coal industry has embarked on a journey, but is only part way to its destination. It has set a course toward safer mines that return each miner home at the end of each shift and toward low-emissions power plants fueled by coal. The industry is drawing closer to building a new domestic fuel industry that converts coal to clean diesel fuel and can help offset the nation’s growing dependence on foreign energy.

For each of these goals, enabling technologies are not yet in reach, but all are within sight. For example, recent mining accidents spotlighted the absence of two-way communications devices that could help locate miners trapped underground. At a time when cell phones connect people across the country, many wonder why miners can’t communicate underground. But communicating through the air is easier than signaling through hundreds of feet of rock and earth.

The industry supported changes in mine safety laws last year that require the use of ground-penetrating communications devices when they become commercially available, and its work with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health will hopefully speed the development of this technology. Still, changing the laws in Congress is easier than changing the laws of physics. Until we can reliably send signals through the earth, the industry is strengthening its hardwired underground systems to better withstand the force of fire and explosions.

Promising technology is also the key to clean-coal combustion. A full range of clean coal technologies, from gasification to sulfur-capturing scrubbers, is having a similarly dramatic impact on electricity generation that micro-processors had on computing. Power plants built today emit 90 percent fewer emissions than plants they typically replace from the 1970s. In fact, since 1980, clean-coal technologies have cut power-plant emissions by 40 percent — despite a 71 percent increase in coal-power generation — and promise steeper reductions in the near future.

Nowhere does the promise of technology loom larger than in capturing and storing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases suspected of warming the atmosphere. The coal industry has committed major funding to FutureGen, the nation’s first zero-emissions power plant capable of CO2 capture and storage.

At the same time, technology perfected in South Africa can convert some of America’s 250-year supply of coal to clean transportation fuels. With our growing reliance on imported energy from volatile oil-rich regions of the world, and powerful international rivals bidding for the same foreign energy, a domestic coal-to-liquids fuel industry will help us remain secure and continue to grow.

This enormous potential of U.S. coal underscores the urgency of developing technologies capable of capturing and storing greenhouse gases. Fortunately, technological innovation is also America’s strength. Ten years ago, few would have predicted the value of goods traded on something called Ebay would equal the GDP of Kenya, or that a company called Yahoo would attract 380 million users daily to a “Web browser.”

This same ingenuity can give coal new life. That’s good news for a nation whose appetite for energy is ever increasing, because the availability of affordable energy to satisfy that appetite is not. Unquestionably, Americans will need more alternative fuels, from solar and wind to biofuels.We need natural gas and nuclear power, too.

But energy experts, knowing the inherent limitations of other sources, urge us not to forget coal. From the Environmental Protection Agency to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the outlook is the same: Coal will remain the mainstay of American power for years to come.

That’s why the challenge is not how to reduce coal’s use.It’s to use technology to make coal our smartest as well as our most affordable and abundant energy choice.

Kraig R. Naasz is president and CEO of the National Mining Association.

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