The granddaddy of fossil fuels that has fouled the air, poisoned the waters — and created the industrial revolution — will also be the fuel of the digital age. Coal, called an antique fuel by some environmentalists, still produces more than half the electricity in the nation. In Ohio, more than 90 percent of electrical power is generated at coalfired plants.

That is not likely to change significantly over the next two decades, says the federal Energy Information Agency.

The agency predicts electricity demand to steadily increase by about 2 percent annually through 2025 — and construction of coal-fired power plants to grow rapidly after 2010 as utilities turn away from cleanerburning natural gas units because of soaring prices. Nuclear energy’s share of generation, about 20 percent, is not expected to change.

Coal’s bright future is all but inevitable, say major producers, because it’s the least expensive, even when cleaned up. But that’s the rub. Traditional methods of coal burning are dirty. And now a new “greenhouse gas” has been added to coal’s burden — carbon dioxide, the natural byproduct of even the cleanest combustion, and suspected of causing global warming.

Development of so-called clean-coal technology has become almost a cliché as researchers flush with federal dollars look into everything from turning coal into super-clean diesel fuel, natural gas and hydrogen to finding new ways to burn it for power generation. As for carbon dioxide, the Energy Department offers competitive grants for demonstration projects that would inject the CO2 underground. Ohio has funneled about $10 million per year to coal for research and demonstration projects, such as the FirstEnergy Corp.’s Berger plant on the Ohio River, which is testing an innovative scrubber technology that promises to capture all of the major pollutants.

Mining coal has it own environmental consequences, and agencies from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Environmental Protection Agency to state departments of natural resources each require permits. Environmental watchdog groups are not afraid to litigate when they think regulators are flagging. Whatever the outcome of the environmental battles, one fact is certain: Most experts agree that there is plenty of coal. The United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal, with hundreds of years of reserves.

250 years of coal in recoverable reserves Estimates published annually by the Energy Information Agency put recoverable coal reserves using today’s mining technology at more than 268 billion tons, or about 250 years at current consumption levels.

Total estimated coal reserves, including those too deep to economically mine now and some impossible to mine, are nearly 500 billion tons. But most experts rely on the smaller number when figuring long-term supply.

Of course, any depletion horizon would move closer if coal were used to make enormous amounts of diesel and other fuels. Already production in Central Appalachia has begun a slow, inexorable decline, say producers there, because of over-mining to satisfy power plant demand for the region’s cleaner coal. Nationally, coal production for the last dozen years has been a little more than 1 billion tons per year, and the American Mining Association sees that growing. Ohio has an estimated reserve of up to 11 billion tons. The state produced 21 million tons last year — making it 14th-largest producer in the nation. Ohio production peaked about 1970 at 55 million tons.

That was before federal clean air regulations forced power plants to begin cleaning up emissions. Rather than spend money installing pollution controls, electric utilities throughout the East and Midwest began switching from the sulfur-laden coals mined in Ohio and other northern Appalachian areas to cleaner coals from central Appalachia and Wyoming and other far West states where vast reserves lie close to the surface.

That may change, say Ohio coal producers, because new federal rules — along with litigation that began during the Clinton administration — will force power companies to install pollution control equipment over the next decade. That will make it unnecessary to import out-of-state, lower-sulfur, coals, they argue. “With scrubbers [pollution control equipment], it will be better for utilities here to get local coal,” said Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association.

“I think we will increase production by 15 percent, to 24 million tons [per year].” But Ohio probably will not see anything like past production levels, argues Robert Murray, president and CEO of Murray Energy Corp., the state’s largest producer at 11 million tons per year, mostly from underground mines.

“Surface mines are more and more depleted,” he said. “I think coal is very important to Ohio’s economy, but I don’t see it getting much bigger. Other states are doing more for the industry. Ohio is going the other way.”

Environmentalists vs. the miners

Murray and his Pepper Pikebased company have been locked in a long and expensive struggle that in some ways typifies the environmental ground war that producers face — first with the state and still with environmentalists over a Belmont County deep mine that the critics believe will damage Dysert Woods, an old growth forest. The state has allowed the mining, but the Buckeye Forest Council is continuing its opposition in court.

“It’s very archaic to think we can keep using coal,” said Susan Heitker, executive coordinator of the Athens-based group. “Coal is not renewable. I don’t understand how coal is considered viable.” Another Ohio coal producer, John Grisham, president of Buckeye Industrial Mining Co., of Lisbon, seems embittered about his permit troubles.

“They forget that the economy is dependent on coal mining,” he said of state and federal officials. “We’ve got a bureaucracy that is geared against coal, against its use,” he fumed. “The most horrifying part of this to me is that they know it is a crisis and the message is not being delivered to the man on the street.”

Some of the coal industry’s more publicized environmental battles are being waged in West Virginia, where producers are surface mining at the tops of mountains.

Dubbed mountaintop removal by environmental groups, the technique has landed producers in federal courts.

“From my point of view and from folks living with this every day, coal is a dirty fuel that is creating a sacrifice zone in the mountains,” said Bill McKave, an environmental organizer with the national Sierra Club who lives and works in that state. “It cannot be done in an environmentally sound way.”

The mountaintop operations exemplify mining economics. As underground mines have played out or become more expensive to operate, central Appalachian coal producers have had to turn more to surface mining, including on ridges and mountains.

Overall production in the region is still slowly declining.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co. is the major producer in the region. Less than a decade ago, 80 percent of its operations were underground mines. Last year about half was surface, half underground. But the company insists it is mindful of the environment. “Twenty years ago, the environmental extremists were right,” said Katharine Kenny, Massey’s vice president of investor relations, about the mess created by past mountaintop mines.

“But today we put the mountain back on and reclaim the land. People are not aware,” she said. “Everybody who lives in this world is an environmentalist,” she argued. “It’s not that we don’t care about the environment. We just think there are trade-offs. We want the lights turned on.”

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