reserves. In contrast, the nation extracts almost 10 percent of its 420-quad recoverable reserves of oil and natural gas each year.

The substitution of coal for natural gas and oil on a large scale, either directly or through synthetic coal-derived substitutes, would on these grounds seem a ready-made solution to the nation’s energy problems. The simple arithmetic of availability, however, does not tell the whole story. Doubling or tripling the use of coal will take time, investments amounting over the years to hundreds of billions of dollars, and coordinated efforts to solve an array of industrial, economic, and environmental problems.

Unlike oil and gas consumption, coal use is limited not by reserves or production capacity, but by the extraordinary industrial and regulatory difficulties of mining and burning it in an environmentally acceptable, and at the same time economically competitive, manner. Coal is chemically and physically extremely variable, and it is relatively difficult to handle and transport. Its use produces heavy burdens of waste matter and pollutants. Even at its substantial price advantage, Btu for Btu, it cannot compete with oil and natural gas in many applications, because of the expense of handling and storing it, disposing of ash and other solid wastes, and controlling emissions to the air. Only in very large installations, such as utility power plants and large industrial boilers, is coal today generally economic and environmentally suitable as a fuel. Domestic coal production capacity today exceeds domestic* demand, and this may well remain true until the end of the century.14

The health problems associated with coal affect both its production and its use. The health of underground miners presents complex and costly problems, for example, and is in need of better management; black lung is the notable instance. At the other end of the fuel cycle, the evolving state of air pollution regulations to deal with the emissions of coal combustion complicates planning for increased demand and thus in turn inhibits investment in mines, transportation facilities, and coal-fired utility and industrial boilers.

The future is obscured also by a number of more speculative problems, which may result in further regulatory restrictions on the use of coal. Chief among these is the risk that before the middle of the next century, emissions of carbon dioxide, an unavoidable (and essentially uncontrollable) product of fossil fuel combustion, may produce such concentrations in the atmosphere that large and virtually irreversible alterations may occur in the world’s climate. (See chapter 9.) Also worrisome is the water-supply situation, which could limit synthetic fuel production or electricity generation unless large-scale and possibly expensive measures are taken to

*

Statement 1–24, by H.S.Houthakker, D.J.Rose, and B.I.Spinrad: By the end of the century the United States may be a large exporter of coal, especially if the growth of nuclear power is impeded.



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