Coal -- road to enough energy?

By , Natural science editor of The Christian Science Monitor

It is time to take coal seriously. With vigorous development, coal can give the world the extra fuel it needs to face the next two decades confidently. But unless that development is pushed now, the energy outlook will be bleak.

This is the bottom line of a worldwide energy analysis -- the World Coal Study (WOCOL) -- conducted by 16 nations, with China participating as an observer.

The report is cautiously optimistic with a tone of urgency.

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Its optimism is reflected in the participants' conclusion that it is quite feasible to triple world coal production and close the gap already opening between global energy supplies and national needs. But this is balanced by the realization that no combination of other energy sources -- including determined conservation -- realistically can be expected fully to meet demands.

The urgency lies in the report's warning that to exploit coal's potential, "public and private enterprises concerned must act cooperatively and promptly if this is to be achieved."

It adds: "Governments can help in particular by providing the confidence and stability required for investment decisions, by eliminating delays in licensing and planning permissions, by providing clear and stable environmental standards, and by facilitating the growth of free and competitive international trade."

That is a difficult goal for a field as controversial as energy policy. But Carroll L. Wilson, who heads the small WOCOL secretariat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says it is a reasonable goal for the WOCOL nations and one they will probably achieve because they have no other choice.

Three years ago Professor Wilson headed the Workshop on Alternative Strategies (WAES) -- a comparable global study of energy prospects in the 1985- 2000 period. The study forecast that world oil supplies would fall short of demand within that period. It warned, in particular, that decisions by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to restrict production in the early 1980s "could impose severe strains on all consuming countries."

This already is happening, Professor Wilson notes, with a production ceiling lower than expected. The world, he concludes, has no choice but to exercise the coal option now, and to do so vigorously.

Although the Soviet Union and many other countries with "centrally planned economies," as the study puts it, did not take part, the WOLCOL analysis is representative of world conditions.

The 16 WOLCOL countries use 75 percent of the world's energy and produce and use some 60 percent of the coal. Their analyses also included information from China and such data on non-participating nations as is available. The WOLCOL group also spans much of the spectrum of national economies from North America and Europe to India and Indonesia.

In urging rapid expansion of coal production and use, WOLCOL is not ignoring conservation and environmental concerns, including acid rain. But even assuming "vigorous conservation" -- defined as 25 percent reduction in btus per unit of GNP (gross national product) by the year 2000 -- the study concludes "that conservation savings are not of themselves capable of eliminating the world's need for additional energy supplies."

Also, the study does not expect much help from solar energy before the year 2000. But it does expect solar to be growing strongly by that time.

As for environmental quality, Professor Wilson points out that WOLCOL nations believe that strict standards can be achieved and, while this can be expensive, it will be economically manageable.

The big environmental unknown is the impact of carbon dioxide (CO[2]), which is released and accumulates in the atmosphere when coal is burned. This heat-trapping gas eventually could affect climate. But what or how extensive the effect would be is a scientifically controversial subject. There are no clear data or definitive theories on this. Thus WOCOL urges intensive research on this question, while calling the CO[2] issue too uncertain to hold up the development of coal on its account.

Tripling the production of coal means a 10-to 12-fold increase in world coal trade to get this fuel from producer to consumer. This should create a need for something like 1,000 ships, Professor Wilson says, reviving the sagging shipbuilding industry and providing many new jobs in this area alone.

It also will mean major changes in transportation within many countries. In the United States, for example, railroads will have to be rebuilt in many cases and probably pipelines laid to carry coal as a liquid slurry.

Thus, the simple need to triple coal production and use involves a host of difficult problems to be worked out from coal mine to consumer. Each nation in the study looked at its own situation in depth. These national reports will be issued later. Their conclusions, however, are reflected in the WOCOL main report released May 12 in Washington.

For the United States, one interesting point emerges. Its much-touted coal resources do indeed mean it can become the key coal supplier. WOCOL sees no other nation able to assume this role, although Australia, too, can become a strong exporter. The United States, it concludes, is destined, within a decade, to become the "Saudi Arabia of coal."

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