Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Future Brightens for Coal, a Fossil of a Fuel

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Future Brightens for Coal, a Fossil of a Fuel

Article excerpt

GILLETTE, Wyo. -- Switch on a light somewhere, in the country and the odds are one in two that it will be powered not by oil, natural gas, uranium, water, wind or anything else but by coal, that Industrial Revolution-era fuel that seems, at least for now, to have reclaimed a 21st-century future.

Only a year ago, coal was widely considered a fuel of the past, vilified by environmentalists for its links to acid rain and global warming. But power disruptions combined with an administration that has put a greater focus on energy security than environmental protection have given coal a new lease on life. And now, to great celebration in places like Gillette, in Campbell County, which might be called the new capital of coal, utilities have begun to reconsider their plans, switching from gas to coal, giving the industry and miners like Colt Johnson, 36, a much longer lease on life.

"What I try to explain to my kids is that without coal, we wouldn't have lights," Johnson said.

About 52 percent of the nation's electricity is generated by coal, a figure that has been fairly consistent over the last five years, and is a big jump over 10 years ago. And this year, the nation's coal production is expected to reach a record of more than 1.1 billion tons. About one-quarter of that will come from Wyoming, where coal is low in sulfur and close to the surface, giving the state two big advantages as the industry tries to maintain its share in the country's energy supply.

This is what has happened in the last year: Natural gas prices have soared, frightening those who saw that fuel as a kind of panacea for electricity. The Bush administration has backed away from imposing restriction on carbon dioxide, a move would have dealt new setbacks to the industry. And the support for coal has proved politically formidable, with congressional Democrats from coal states in Appalachia and Republicans from the Rockies joining forces to fend off the industry's foes.

The political support has been strengthened by the fact that the concerns of environmentalists have been focused less on coal mines than on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Coal's brighter future is a product in large part of a task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, a Wyoming native, which ruled out proposals that might have relegated coal to secondary status and issued a report instead that included no plans to wean the country from the fossil fuel.

"If rising U.S. electricity demand is to be met, then coal must play a significant role," the task force said in its report last month, projecting that coal will continue to account for about 50 percent of electricity generation for at least the next 20 years.

Of the new electric generation planned for the United States from now to 2005, as much as 16 percent is to come from coal, a major increase from a year ago when no coal-fired plants were on the drawing board, according to the Edison Electric Institute, the industry's main trade group. …

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