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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal's Future

Air Date: Week of

For centuries Americans have relied on coal as an abundant source of inexpensive, if inefficient, energy. Today the industry faces tough challenges, including increasing layoffs and pressures to develop cleaner technologies. John Gregory reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In much of the nation, when you turn on a light, make coffee, surf the Internet, or do laundry, the power likely comes from burning coal. Coal generates more than half the nation's electricity and it's easy to see why. Coal is cheap, and the US has huge reserves. The Department of Energy predicts coal use here will slowly increase in the coming decade, and double worldwide in the next 30 years. Coal's future would seem bright if the fuel did not take such a devastating toll on the environment. A push for stricter regulations is dampening optimism among miners and mining executives. They're responding with a mixture of anger and optimism, business mergers, and an emphasis on technology. John Gregory has our story.

(Milling voices)

GREGORY: In the shadow of the golden dome of West Virginia's state capitol, several hundred miners gathered on a recent spring morning to rally in support of coal. At first glance it looks like an upbeat gathering. But miners like John Harden are worried. Mr. Harden has worked in the coal fields of southern West Virginia for 25 years.

HARDEN: These environmentalists are after shutting the coal industry down, and we're here to save that, our jobs, and preserve America.

GREGORY: Mr. Harden says lawsuits against a popular type of surface mining called mountain top removal could end hundreds of jobs in the mountain state. Plus, John Harden says proposed Federal environmental regulations affecting coal-burning power plants could devastate the industry nationwide. United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts urges his members to fight these threats to coal.

ROBERTS: You can't say don't burn it in Washington, don't mine it in West Virginia, and tell me you're not trying to take the jobs of every single coal miner in the United States of America (cheers in the background) and we're here today to say no, no, hell no!

(Crowd applause)

GREGORY: Regulatory changes have already deeply affected the American coal industry. To reduce air pollution and acid rain, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments required power plants to emit less sulfur and nitrogen oxides. To achieve this, utilities could either install expensive pollution control equipment called scrubbers, or simply burn coal containing less sulfur. In response, demand shifted from the high-sulfur coal generally found in the eastern US to low-sulfur reserves in the western states. Wyoming is now the nation's leading producer. Gerry Van Enitti is with Resource Data International, an energy market consulting firm. He says western coal is now supplying markets nearly nationwide.

VAN ENITTI: It's getting into Georgia, it goes up the Ohio River, it gets into Illinois, Wisconsin, it gets throughout the Great Lakes. And it gets to those places much more economically than the coal that has been traditionally supplied into those areas from, for instance, the Illinois Basin, or central Appalachia, or northern Appalachia.

GREGORY: With some seams ranging up to 90 feet thick, most western coal can be surface mined and sold for $3 to $5 a ton. Even when adding transportation costs and adjusting for burning more coal to get higher heat values, western coal is still a bargain compared to eastern coal, which can sell for $20 to $30 a ton. Gerry Van Enitti says tougher phases of the Clean Air Act that take effect in January, 2000, will favor low-sulfur coal even more.

VAN ENITTI: The western coal industry has a good, strong, stable future. Some of the other coal regions that are more mature, that have much higher sulfur content or higher mining costs, are somewhat in question.

GREGORY: That uncertain future is evident in southern Illinois.

(Machinery hums)

GREGORY: Six hundred feet below the farmland here, Bill Lavanti operates what's called a continuous miner in the Old Ben #25 mine. At the front of the machine a large roller spiked with metal teeth spins around, scraping coal from the wall of the tunnel. Two big lobster-like claws pull the loose coal onto a conveyor belt, carries the black rock over the machine, and deposits it behind the miner. This coal is from what's called the heron seam, a 6- to 17- foot layer of coal that underlies most of southern Illinois, southwestern Indiana, and western Kentucky.

(Machinery continues, slows to a halt)

GREGORY: About 400 men and women worked at Old Ben, but the coal they mined here contained to much sulfur to be burned under the Clean Air Act. This mine closed in 1994, with some 18 years of coal reserves left untouched. A few of the mine's hundreds of miles of tunnels have been converted into a museum.


GREGORY: Bill Lavanti walks the eerily silent passages, demonstrating for tourists the machines he once operated for a living.

LAVANTI: It's sort of strange, yet to me, to this day, to hear it this quiet. Where we're standing now, you would have heard a main line belt running, the hoists where we skipped the coal out. There would have been noise in the shop.

GREGORY: Mr. Lavanti worked 28 years underground before taking early retirement when the Old Ben mine closed. There were once 6 active mines in his community of West Frankfort, Illinois. Now, they're all closed.

LAVANTI: If you lived here, there was only one job to have if you were going to be a working person. And that was in the mines. It was a dangerous job in a lot of ways, but you made very good money.

GREGORY: Mr. Lavanti says former miners have tried to find other jobs as factory workers or truck drivers. But he says it's hard to match the $51,000 average salary they could make mining today. Some have simply left Illinois to try to find work in the coal fields of Wyoming.

ROBERTS: That is the travesty of all this.

GREGORY: UMWA president Cecil Roberts.

ROBERTS: We haven't seen a corresponding job increase in the west to reflect the job loss in the east. We simply have given up those jobs.

GREGORY: In the 1920s mines employed more than 700,000 men and produced about 500 million tons of coal. Today the industry produces more than a billion tons of coal, yet employs only about 80,000 miners.


CROSS: This is Main Street. This is the center of town. You would come down right through. We've been pretty fortunate so far with the businesses. Some of them have left and others have moved in here, like this...

GREGORY: Jerry Cross is the mayor of Marissa, Illinois, population 2,500. He says once the closures began in the 1990s, the social fabric of Marissa began to change.

CROSS: As the layoffs have taken place, divorce rates, just sky-high. My police have to deal more with battery-type stuff. You know, being a miner myself and -- you know, how do you go in there and explain to somebody that, you know look, you lost your job, you've got to get on with your damn life. And you can't take it out on your wife, can't take it out on your kids.

GREGORY: Although Jerry Cross's mining days are over, he still serves as an organizer for the United Mine Workers. Along with other local officials, he's working to reverse a decision that would close one of the county's last remaining mines. The Marissa mine employs 400 people and provides coal to Illinois Power. The utility has decided it will be cheaper to import low-sulfur coal from Wyoming rather than install pollution control devices that would enable the plant to burn coal that's mined just a few miles away. The Marissa mine is owned by Peabody Coal, and even though they may have to close that complex, Peabody would still supply coal to Illinois Power from one of its mines in Wyoming.

(Beeps; a door slides; footfalls)

GREGORY: Peabody is the nation's largest coal company and one of the biggest producers in the world. In their corporate headquarters overlooking the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis, Peabody vice president Vic Svec says the competition to mine coal for the lowest possible cost has driven the industry into a series of mergers. Now, the top 10 mining companies in the US produce about 65% of the coal mined in the country.

SVEC: We continue to have an appetite for growth. And the 2 foremost ones for us come through serving the Asian markets, which represent good growth, or our Australian operations. And then also, the low-sulfur coal within the United States.

GREGORY: Unlike the diversification strategies some petroleum companies are pursuing, Mr. Svec says Peabody is focusing exclusively on coal and coal- generated power.

SVEC: We are the Saudi Arabia of coal here in the United States. We have more coal reserves than any other nation. That's an astounding statistic and one that we can't take for granted. What that means, though, is that we need to continue to find ways to use that coal in an environmentally safe fashion.

GREGORY: Environmentally safe is the key phrase, though. When burned, coal releases more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel. Many scientists believe carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. To help slow greenhouse gas emissions, world leaders developed the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty calling for reductions in carbon dioxide releases. If ratified by the Senate, the US would have to cut CO2 emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

MYERS: In terms of severity on coal, the Kyoto Protocol certainly is a show- stopper for a very large proportion of coal-fired generation.

GREGORY: Todd Myers is the environmental program manager for energy consulting firm RDI.

MYERS: Coal-fired power plants represent about 30% of total US CO2 emissions. So, if you're going to reduce CO2 in this country, you're going to focus on power plants.

GREGORY: Myers says the Kyoto Treaty would force at least half of the coal- fired generators in the country to close. And electricity prices could increase 25% to 75%. While some in the coal industry fear Kyoto could deal a lethal blow to coal, others see salvation in emerging technologies.

(Machinery; steam)

GREGORY: The Louisville Gas and Electric Cane-Run Generating Plant is one of numerous coal-fired utilities lining the Ohio River. The heart of the facility is a hot, dark maze of pipes and duct-work connecting to boilers 10 stories high. At one of the boilers, manager John Voyles gingerly opens a small viewing hatch to reveal a brilliant orange glow.

VOYLES: The flame is very bright on a coal fire. You really wouldn't want to look in for very long, because we usually use dark glasses to see it.

GREGORY: The methods of burning coal for power haven't changed much in decades. Coal is ground into a fine powder, then injected into a boiler and burned. The fire heats water, creating steam, which turns a turbine generator to make electricity. It's a simple, yet highly inefficient process. Only about one third of coal's energy value results in electricity. The rest is lost as waste heat going up the smokestack. Robert Porter of the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy says improving that burning efficiency is key to coal's future as a fuel.

PORTER: If we can increase the efficiency of coal combustion, we use less fuel to generate a comparable amount of electricity. That alone can achieve some significant reductions in not only the traditional air pollutants, but also in the release of greenhouse gases.

GREGORY: The DOE and electric utilities are developing 2 new methods for burning coal that they say can increase coal's energy efficiency from 30% to nearly 60%, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by half. Robert Porter says the United States could become a leading exporter of clean coal technologies to developing nations, thus generating an estimated trillion dollars in revenues and thousands of jobs. Plus, that same technology could allow domestic utilities to continue to burn coal.

LAVANTI: (on PA system, amidst machinery hum) Come in, Kenny! We're ready!

(Humming continues)

GREGORY: Back in southern Illinois at the Old Ben mine, Bill Lavanti rides the elevator back to the surface. In an area already battered by environmental regulations, it's surprising to find any optimism. But Mr. Lavanti says he does see a future for the coal hidden under the local corn fields.

LAVANTI: It's a power source that will be used way into the future. It just depends on when they want to use it again. It's not going anywhere. It will be mined. It can be used in the future. And when the future is for our area, I have no idea.

GREGORY: In the meantime, the miner's union and coal companies are joining forces to fight any ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, because they fear the face for cleaner power will leave them in the dust. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in West Frankfort, Illinois.



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