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U.S. is caught in energy time loop

In October 1980, the National Conference of Editorial Writers convened in Huntington. The group meets in a different city each year, with its sessions generally focused on a central topic. Logically enough, when NCEW met in coal-rich West Virginia, the topic was energy.

Thus, the visiting newspaper people heard Carl Bagge, then president of the National Coal Association, talk about how U.S. coal reserves were so great they could meet all the nation’s energy needs for decades to come.

The group was bused to the Ashland Oil refinery in Catlettsburg, Ky., to see a new pilot plant designed to turn coal into a liquid fuel. And a lucky few of the conference-goers were able to take a spin in a new-fangled electric car, brought to the conference by General Motors.

Where energy is concerned, much has changed since that 1980 conference. Unfortunately, much also remains the same.

Surely the biggest changes are to be seen regarding coal, where output has soared and mine employment has been slashed in half. U.S.

Department of Energy figures show total coal production soared from 782.1 million tons in 1983 to 1,069.5 million tons in 2003. Meanwhile, the number of miners employed to dig that coal declined from 175,642 in 1983 to 75,000 in 2003.

That dramatic gain in productivity is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, with most of the nation’s coal going to generate electricity, coal’s productivity gain has acted as a brake on the price of electricity. That’s good news for everybody. On the other hand, the disappearance of 100,000 good-paying mining jobs has been bad news for West Virginia and other coal-producing states.

The folks from GM who proudly showed off their electric car at the conference predicted it would be "the next big thing." That prediction proved wrong, of course.

Today, more than 20 years later, a few hybrid gas/electric cars are on the road and they’re growing in popularity, but America remains firmly wedded to the gasoline engine.

And that coal-to-liquid pilot plant at the Ashland refinery? The process worked, but not at a price per gallon that anybody would be willing to pay. After an investment of $200 million, the public/private venture was scrapped.

Other efforts to turn coal into an affordable liquid fuel continue elsewhere, but nobody is predicting when -- or if -- any of those will prove of practical value.

Meanwhile, the price of gasoline at many Tri-State stations hit $2 per gallon last week, with still higher -- maybe a lot higher -- prices seen coming this summer.

The blunt fact is that, where gasoline is concerned, we’re in much the same fix we were in when OPEC staged its first oil embargo in 1973.

President Nixon reacted to the embargo by announcing "Project Independence," aimed at ending the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. The project went nowhere. Later, President Carter revived the idea, with an equal lack of success.

In the years since, of course, American motorists have fallen in love with SUVs, big pickups and other gas guzzlers, effectively erasing many of the gains we had made in fuel conservation. Today, we have more drivers, driving more vehicles for more miles -- and we remain every bit as dependent on foreign oil as we were when Nixon proclaimed energy independence as a national goal.

In the movie "Groundhog Day," comic Bill Murray plays Phil, a cynical TV weatherman dispatched to Punxsutawney, Pa., to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. Phil somehow gets caught in a time warp and finds himself living the same frustrating day over and over again.

Where energy is concerned, our country seems caught in a similar time loop, repeating the same scenario over and over. As much as some things change, others remain the same.

James E. Casto is associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His telephone number is (304) 526-2796, and his e-mail address is jcasto@herald-dispatch.com.

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