Oil-scarce world eager for US coal

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The world clamors for American coal. The United States has a third of the globe's economically recoverable coal reserves.

An impending strike by the unionized miners who dig out 50 percent of the coal produced in the US is but a minor detour on the way to what, in terms of energy, is being called the Age of Coal.

With development of alternative fuels in its infancy, American's coal seems destined to become the world's dominant energy source in the next 20 years. Already US coal ports are taxed beyond capacity, with demands that increase every day.

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President Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan have all cited coal as America's strategic resource.

The situation has changed so swiftly that the nation's coal and transportation industries have not been able to keep up. A series of articles a year ago said the National Coal Association's mines could produce 100 million tons more a year but they could not see it.

Even nor, as some 160,000 union coal miners in the East and Midwest prepare to officially go on strike March 27, there is a three - to four- month domestic supply of soft coal on hand (mostly stockpiled by utility companies).

But coal-carrying ships wait at Norfolk, Baltimore, and other Eastern coal ports for export supplies which inadequate facilities make it difficult to deliver.

Lines of foreign coal ship wait off Newport News, Va., paying heavy demurrage charges of $20,000 a day and often facing a 35-day delay.

The Oil Age seems reaching exhaustion with the new Coal Age not yet ready -- the United States cannot benefit from the demand for its coal until its mining operationg and shipping facilities are geared up to produce and transport the mineral

US coal production had declined until recently. The nation currently gets only around 19 percent of its energy from coal. Production, at 630 million tons in 1947, went down to 403 millions in 1961. Oil was dominant.

The 1973-74 Arab oil embargo changed that. In 1979 the US produced 776 million tons of coal, and about 830 million tons last year. About half the coal produced in the US is dug out of strip mines in the West using huge machines and nonunion labor.

There's a 100 million-ton excess production capacity, says the National Coal Association, that could be utilized right away, and production would double in 10 years.

American coal exports increased an amazing 40 percent last year, despite port bottlenecks. Now it appears there will be a strike in the Eastern coalfields, as a three-year contract comes to its end without a new settlement. in 1978 these same Appalachian Mountain miners struck for 111 days.

Sooner or later, the current impasse will be resume its almost reluctant progress toward the role of world coal bin. These things are likely to happen in the next few years:

* Many existing utility plants will be converted from oil to coal.

* Coal burning will be cleaner, at least in the US. But it may not be as clean as environmentalists want -- the Reagan administration wants to relax some requirements of the Clean Ait Act.

* Industrial plants may increasingly switch to coal; already some big ones are beginning to do so.

* Coal handling facilities at ports will be modernized, and the railroads will acquire the rolling stock to transport the increased output of the mines. Harbors will be dredged so that larger coal vessels can be loaded at US ports. The biggest coal ships now are 100,000 tons, and most US ports can't handle them; eventually the coal ships may double in size.

If the present union trend continues, strikes may be less of a factor. The United Mine Workers used to control 80 percent of production; now it's 50 percent and declining.

In general, the conversion to the Coal Age is likely to touch every inhabitant of the globe in some fashion -- hopefully for the better.

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