A grim reminder that coal is still critical to the nation

Monday, January 9, 2006

When Rick Honaker was growing up in coal country, his grandmother would dispatch him to the backyard, pail in hand, to scoop up the shiny, black rocks that fed her stove. It was the only fuel in a home that had long sent its men to the mines.

Now, a generation later, the only time Honaker's own children have ever seen a lump of coal is when he brings one home. Honaker, who teaches mining engineering at the University of Kentucky, figures his children need to see where they came from -- and where we all may be going.

Until this past week's mining tragedy in West Virginia, coal was very much out of sight, out of mind -- and, for many people, just as well forgotten.

But even as the tragic death of 12 men beneath the ground reminds the nation of its grimy coal-mining past, the ebony jewel they sought remains very much part of our present. Even if we don't know it.

"There's a whole gamut of reasons why there's this lack of understanding, for the lack of people not being able to see how important coal is to their lives," says Honaker.

It's hard, at first, to see how that could be the case. The notion of a coal-fired stove seems old-timey now, and a coal furnace almost unimaginable. To see a coal delivery truck in one of our big cities, or a coal-driven locomotive steaming across the countryside now, would be as anachronistic as a horse and buggy.

Electricity from coal

Meanwhile, the coal miner's union is a shadow of what it once was, when its bulldog of a leader challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt for political power. And in cities like Pittsburgh, where factories long ago filled the sky with soot and smoke, the coal fires have been relegated to memory.

But if we don't see or feel or smell the power of coal any more, that does not mean we have left it behind.

More than half this country's electricity is supplied by coal. About 130 new coal-fired power plants are on the drawing boards for the next few years, and that could be just the beginning.

With the price of power sharply higher, the U.S. -- long known as the Saudi Arabia of coal -- is likely to be relying on it for generations to come.

Coal, its image notwithstanding, is not old-fashioned. It's just that most Americans have the luxury of ignoring it.

"The problem is, it's not burned by us directly. It's burned in power plants. And because of that we can live with the illusion that coal is the fuel of the past," says Barbara Freese, author of "Coal: A Human History," a book documenting the rock's role in industrialization.

Coal was a humble fuel, but one in such abundance that it could change society.

Coal played a vital role in shaping America. It helped spread the American frontier westward, powering the new nation's railroads. It drove the industrialization of Northern states, helping them defeat their Southern rivals in the Civil War.

Making a comeback

By the early 1900s, the U.S. was a coal colossus.

More than 700,000 men worked in the mines. The rock they hauled up was a part of everyday life far beyond Appalachia's hills and hollows. Coal was the primary fuel for cooking and heating, as well as factories.

The supremacy of coal, harnessed by union leaders, gave lowly miners real power for the first time.

In the late 1940s, machines began taking over for men. In the two decades following the war, the number of miners dropped by almost two-thirds. Producers increasingly harvest coal at the surface, rather than by sending men into the ground. And they've shifted mining away from union strongholds in Appalachia. Today, Wyoming has displaced West Virginia as the nation's biggest producer of coal.

Even as that happened, America's everyday familiarity with coal also began to decline, as consumers and companies shifted to other types of fuel.

The fact is that even as coal disappeared from everyday life, Americans were still using coal. Plenty of it. While the number of people working in the mines dropped, the output continued to climb, a response to demand from electric power providers.

Today, utilities are planning 130 new coal-fired plants, and another 20 or so plants that rely on coal gasification, a process that turns solid coal into gas. Not long ago, experts would've told you that chances are many of those would never get built.

But with the high prices of other fuels, people have stopped asking if there is a need for 130 plants. Coal is hot.

"The question is whether that will swell to 200 or 300 or more," McIlvaine says.

The new coal-fired plants are much cleaner than the old ones. But with debate raging over global warming, building scores of new plants is by no means a settled question.

And finding the answer goes back to the point raised by Honaker, the professor whose Lexington, Ky. campus is powered by coal.

The nation's coal reserves could last 250 years, some experts say. Maybe longer.

But given the world's rapidly rising energy needs, the struggle to protect the environment, and the costs of extracting coal, how long can we afford to continue ignoring its place in our world?

"If you ask a student in my class, where does electricity come from," Honaker says, "I bet you 50 percent of them would point to the light switch."

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