President Carter's coal commission, after two years of studying the feasibility of using more coal and less imported oil to produce electricity, has put forward some "can do" recommendations that could save the US two million barrels of oil a day by the end of the decade. Equally important, the commission concludes that shifting utilities from oil to domestic coal can be accomplished without violating federal clean air standards.
The commission's proposals already have drawn fire from some utility and coal industry officials who doubt that a massive conversion to coal is economically feasible without a softening of federal antipollution regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, is concerned that widespread use of coal might require even stronger cleanair requirements. The coal commission report does not deny that these are obstacles the Carter administration will have to confront, but the commission composed of industry, labor, and government representatives says the increase in emissions (a maximum of 0.01 percent in "world atmospheric concentrations") is not an unrealistic price to pay for an expected 60 percent industry cutback in oil and gas consumption.
To help utilities cover the huge initial capital investments needed to convert existing oil and gas burning plants to coal the commission proposes $15 billion in federal subsidies. Even so, utility rates for consumers would still have to be hiked to help defray expenses, and that raises another problem. State utility regulators are generally reluctant to grant rate hikes that are sought to cover utility company investments. The commission recommends urging state public utility commissions to allow higher rates.
Another problem frequently raised in connection with coal conversion is the high costs of rail transportation, which in some parts of the country are higher than the price of the raw material. The use of slurry pipelines, which carry finely dissolved coal suspended in water, is one way to avoid soaring rail costs , although slurrying is not considered practical in the West because of the large amounts of water required. Barging coal from Appalachia up the east coast to New England is another talked-about alternative.
The coal commission reportedly took into consideration the concerns of environmentalists about "acid rain" and the so-called "greenhouse effect" of coal emissions on the atmosphere. These, like all environmental aspects of the commission's recommendations, will need to be studied thoroughly to ensure that safe standards are maintained. If the expanded use of coal can indeed be accomplished as the commission outlines, the projected $25 billion reduction in US imports (from the current $95 billion) would certainly bolster the dollar abroad as well as help give Americans greater energy independence.