Coal Makes a Stealth Comeback


"Coal is proving hard to kill mostly because it's so entrenched."

Coal is arguably the No. 1 target of new climate legislation introduced this month in the Senate, amid renewed doubts about America's dependence on fossil fuels fanned by the Gulf oil spill.

All things considered, you might think Big Coal is in big trouble. As Illinois Coal Association President Phillip Gonet laments, "Coal is an easy target."

But in spite of the forces arrayed against it, coal is far from finished. In some states, coal is staging an unlikely comeback.

True, the most recent energy bill would limit greenhouse-gas emissions that coal produces in vast abundance. But it goes much easier than coal's many enemies would like, laying on rich subsidies and watering down carbon-cutback demands.

Coal is proving hard to kill mostly because it's so entrenched. Despite high hopes for harnessing the power of wind, sun and atom, half of America's electricity still comes from coal.

Most telling—the developing world is embracing it, with China snapping up mineral rights and cranking up new coal-fired plants. That sets the stage for coal to be an important part of future energy.

Last year, eight coal plants opened in the U.S., the most since 1991, and more are on the way. Even if carbon regulation becomes a reality and economic growth stagnates, coal still would supply more electricity than any other source as of 2035, according to the latest EIA estimates.

When Americans turn their car keys and flip their light switches, many would prefer that something other than oil and coal provide the juice.

But they want the engine to turn over and the bulb to go on. If not, they surely will blame one of the few groups that makes Big Coal look almost popular in comparison these days: Washington incumbents.

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