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Commentary By Max Schulz

U.S. Can't Do Without Coal

The six miners who lost their lives in Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine did so in the service of an important cause, though one not well understood by the general public. Their tragedy serves as a reminder that producing the great sums of energy without which our economy would collapse can be a hard and hazardous business.

It will take ingenuity and innovation in order for the incidence of accident to decline, though our demand for coal meanwhile continues to increase.

It is tempting to think of coal as an anachronism, a dirty relic of the 19th century and America's early industrialization. Many people in the internet era would be surprised to learn that coal still serves as the backbone of America's 21st century economy.

Roughly half of our electricity each year is generated by more than a billion tons of coal. Nothing else comes close; nuclear energy and natural gas are each responsible for about a fifth, while hydropower supplies about 7 percent. Wind and solar energies make up just part of the tiny balance.

Our computers, servers, iPods, and cell phones depend on electricity from coal, as do more conventional gadgets like refrigerators, televisions, and microwave ovens. Add to that list the nation's factories, schools, stores, hospitals, and emergency call centers. Over the last quarter century, the United States' real GDP has more than doubled, with much of this growth coming from businesses and industries chiefly relying on electricity - not oil or gas. This simply could not have occurred without coal.

Demand for electricity will rise in coming years to support continued economic growth. Estimates suggest we will need perhaps as much as 50 percent more in two decades. Our industrial sector will continue electrifying. So, too, will our transportation sector, as the steering, brakes, pumps, and other components of the cars and trucks we drive convert to electric power.

How to get that extra electricity is the question staring us in the face after this recent tragedy. Deep shaft mining of the sort practiced at Crandall Canyon, as well as in the Appalachian region, is inherently dangerous.

And while mining is safer now than even a generation or two ago – mine fatalities have decreased 92 percent since 1970, while coal production has risen 83 percent over the same period – it will always be perilous to descend into the earth. But miners risk their lives because abundant supplies of cheap electricity are vitally important to our economy.

Environmental groups would like to do away with coal altogether because its combustion emits pollutants and greenhouse gases. But the alternatives the greens propose cannot begin to come close to meeting coal's share of our energy needs.

Wind, solar, and biomass represent a miniscule portion of our energy consumption because they are uneconomical and unreliable. Coal and nuclear energy, on the other hand, promise large, reliable, and inexpensive supplies of electricity. The good news is that both coal and uranium are found in abundant quantities in North America.

The coal industry faces two key challenges. The first is safety. If you ask people to undertake risky work, you must seek ways to lower those risks. Mining may be safer than at any time in its history, but that fact can provide no solace to friends and families of the Utah miners.

After two Appalachian mine accidents last year claimed the lives of more than a dozen miners, lawmakers in Kentucky and West Virginia moved to require oxygen stockpiles in mines and to mandate the use of advanced tracking technology. Those measures seem eminently reasonable.

Of course, less hazardous surface mining processes exist, such as strip mining or mountaintop removal. But these practices leave a bigger environmental footprint than traditional underground mining. The reflexive opposition to surface mining by the environmental lobby needs to be reexamined.

Environmental protection and energy production entail certain tradeoffs; it does not have to be a choice of one or the other. Going forward, a better balance must be struck that takes into account worker safety as well.

The other challenge is to convince policymakers and the public that it is possible to use coal while minimizing the environmental consequences. Over the last quarter century, innovative clean coal technologies have helped cut pollution emissions even though overall coal use has increased. Promising carbon sequestration projects show the potential of limiting or even eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

While terms like "carbon sequestration" make the eyes glaze over, the technologies they represent hold the key to the continued use of coal. The United States has 250 years' worth of coal; given our economy's increasing demand for affordable, reliable electricity (a need renewable energies will be unable to meet), we'll need all that we can get. Now more than ever, the pursuit of cleaner, safer technologies cannot be overlooked.