Thursday, January 05, 2006

Despite the dangers of the mines, coal is a booming and essential US industry

I thought it was interesting in the wake of the tragedy in West Virginia to see how important coal and coal mining are to the US and our economy.

The American coal industry, supported by burgeoning international demand for energy and continuing U.S. reliance on the fossil fuel for electricity, has seen steadily rising sales, revenue and investment after almost 20 years of stagnation.

"It is a thriving industry. We produce more coal year in and year out than ever before. It is still one of our lowest-cost, if not the lowest-cost, source of energy," said Trina Karolchik Wafle, associate director at National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University.

A deadly accident at a West Virginia coal mine this week underscored the dangerous work performed by tens of thousands of miners to keep power plants and industries running worldwide.

Coal-burning power plants produce about half of all electricity in the U.S.

Rising prices for natural gas, caused by strong demand and exacerbated by hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, has made some gas-fired plants too expensive to operate. They account for 23 percent of U.S. electric-generating capacity but less than 18 percent of output, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Nearly 50% of all electricity is from coal.

About as much as all other electricity sources (natural gas, petroleum, nuclear, hydroelectric, and renewables) combined (EIA stats here). For those who agree with Al Gore, that the environment is the most important issue ever, where's the outrage? Coal is not the cleanest burning fuel out there, all others available are at least as clean, if not cleaner, so why not increase our dependence on other fuels. Like oil and natural gas, but not from foreign sources, because we don't need to keep making the Saudis richer. How about ANWR...

Instead of addressing this nation's energy needs, Congress chooses to play power politics. ANWR, for example, could provide up to 1 million barrels a day. It was snatched from the filibuster-proof budget bill by 25 mostly northeastern House Republicans, but "only after they wrangled an extra $1 billion in home heating subsidies to pay for 'costly' natural gas," the Journal noted.

[...]Like it or not, America needs petroleum products, not technologies applicable only on a tiny scale sometime in the distant future if conditions are just right. It needs gas. It needs oil. It needs a transportation system and a protected supply. It needs to find new sources and a way to fuel and sustain the foundations of our economic system in the face of outside, unfriendly forces. For the foreseeable future, that is a fact of life; and that means petroleum.

Along with our lack of energy production and exploration, there is another looming problem. As the Journal pointed out, "The real worry is that soon we won't even be able to import ourselves out of our energy needs." It turns out that U.S. buyers are being outbid by Europeans and Asians for liquefied natural gas.

The best hope is that someday soon Americans who have been hoodwinked on the ANWR issue will come around; that a gas line from the North Slope to the Midwest will become a reality.

... or even better nuclear...

According to EIA again, our nuclear production is outpaced by France, Sweden, Lithuania, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovakia, and Finland when compared on a per capita base (population numbers from the CIA's World Fact Book). We're on a par level with Netherlands and South Korea.

We've got to get our country in line with being more self-sufficient when it comes to oil. That means importing it less by increasing our own production by drilling in ANWR and building more refineries. It also means building more nuclear reactors as well as exploring alternative transportation (hybrid & electric vehicles).

We may not need middle eastern oil in the future, but we're sure not taking the steps to make that happen now. Liberals talk about fuel efficiency, hybrid/electric cars, and stricter emmisions standards like those are the only factors on pollution and oil consumption. Too bad they can't see a bigger picture.