Europeans urged to unlock coal

* The European landmass is a storehouse of unused energy in the shape of coal. * It is imperative that steps be taken to unlock and exploit this rich natural resource.

That is the urgent thrust of a report circulated to the 10 member countries of the European Community (EC) by European coal producers.

It points to Western Europe's extreme tardiness in moving away from oil and natural gas in the past decade, and notes that further dragging of feet will mean that members of the EC will remain under the threat of severe energy shortages resulting from the stresses and strains of Arab politics.

''As far as possible,'' the report says, ''Western Europe must free itself from such a danger by taking steps that are necessary to ensure that the hope associated with the advent of a new coal economy may become a reality.''

In their report the coal producers underline the obvious contradiction between continued heavy reliance on a scarce resource - oil - and the failure so far to take advantage of the huge amounts of coal that lie literally under the feet of Europeans.

The figures produced in the report, entitled ''Western Europe's New Coal Economy,'' are certainly salutary. On a world basis, oil and natural gas account for only 20 percent of fossil energy reserves but account for two-thirds of energy consumption. Coal, composing 80 percent of reserves, enjoys only one-third of the world energy market.

In Western Europe, in fact, the aversion to coal is even sharper. Despite efforts to become less reliant on petroleum, coal still accounts for only one-fifth of the community's energy consumption.

This imbalance amounts to folly, the report states, and it must be corrected as a matter of urgency. If Europe wants assured supplies of energy in coming decades a ''positive return'' of coal is essential.

In their initial reacton to the report, West European governments and businessmen tend to accept its main arguments but are not short of reasons why the swerve away from oil reliance toward coal has been slow.

One of the soundest applications of coal as an energy resource is in electricity generation, but that requires a new family of coal-fired power stations.

With the European economy in the doldrums, investment on such stations has been slack. High borrowing rates have not helped.

What is needed for the future is a conscious effort, particularly by West European governments, to accept the argument that coal is the key energy resource for the next century, and fashion policies accordingly.

According to the coal producers, there is a likely pitfall along this policy route, and it must be avoided: Although some imported coal will have to be used to fuel future energy programs, Europe's own coal should provide the basis of coal-based energy output.

Otherwise Europe could make the mistake over coal that it made over oil - relying too heavily on producers beyond the range of European influence.

The report urges the European Commission - the EC's permanent civil service - to promote investment in new coal mines, power stations, and research geared to conversion of coal into oil and synthetic natural gas.

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