Waiting for America's great new Coal Era

You are going over to Room 3110 of the Dirksen Office building. You enter a hearing room where the Senate Energy and Mineral Resources committee is taking testimony on coal transportation. Senator John Warner (R) of Virginia introduces the panels. There are 17 witnesses - groups like the railroad panel, the inland waterway panel, the shippers' panel, a representative on highways, and a man from the ''Slurry Transport Association,'' who can tell you about grinding up coal in water (''slurry'') and transporting it in pipes. There have been agitated hearings like this recently before Senate and House committees. What does it mean? Soon your ear begins to get accustomed itself to terms and statistics and you feel the underlying tension. It's simple: the world wants energy, why not coal the United States holds around 30 percent of the world's economically recoverable coal reserves (how much is that? - oh, maybe 200 billion tons) and now it is trying to get it out. Underground in flickering seams men dig it; colliers float off US harbors waiting to snatch it. In short, the world is changing; it's a new chapter, a new era: the dominance of oil is giving way, coal may be coming in; America is to coal what OPEC is to oil. It's probably not a temporary boom; it's permanent. But it may take to the end of the century before it's fully established.

You begin to find out things. ''Coal'' isn't just coal, there are different kinds; in particular there is ''high-energy metallurgical coal'' (used in steel making) and there is ''steam coal'' which seems to be what Europe and Asia particularly want now, burned by utilities to make power.

Let's see . . . you find that the US will use maybe 740 million tons of coal this year; that it will export something more than that (and could export an extra 100 million tons if it had the facilities to get it out cheaply. Also there seems to be a dramatic rivalry between the smaller sized sea-going coal carriers and big new super-carriers, 1,000 feet long (as long as the Empire State building) that would like to hawl US coal cheaply but require a harbor channel depth of 50 feet. They are being used in certain harbors abroad, it seems, but no major US coal port can presently service them because their depth stops at 45 feet or so.

''I am confident that if we all act together - the coal industry, the rail industry, and the government,'' says John S. Snow of the rail panel, ''we will be able to make American coal the powerful rival of OPEC oil which it should be.''

Brig Gen. Forrest T. Gay, speaking for the civil works office of the Army says export of steam coal was ''virtually nonexistent'' five years ago; now it swells by train and boat - it makes ''the most rapidly growing use of our inland navigation system.''

It changes a lot of things, says William Dempsey, president of the Association of American Railroads. ''At the start of 1981 there was a backlog of more than 7,000 open-top hopper cars on order and undelivered to railroads.'' Even if you don't know about open-topped hopper cars you are impressed. Somebody from the Union Pacific railroad says his line carried only 14 million ''short tons'' in 1975 and expects 33 million this year.

A year ago a fleet of ships waited hungrily for coal off Hampton Roads but now a better delivery system has ended much of the wait.

You come away burdened with statistics and new terms. You reflect that this hearing is chiefly about coal exports: widening harbors, deepening channels, improving ''clam-sheel diggers.'' The world is changing: the Department of Energy thinks there will be a ''342 percent'' increase in exports over today's level by 2000. But how about here at home? Won't the foreign clamor for US coal to replace Middle East oil be duplicated in American industries turning to coal? It would seem almost inevitable though Congress hasn't paid much attention to it yet. Some congressmen have. Rep. Robert Edgar (D) of Penn., member of a water resources subcommittee, says water projects can't move all the coal, we need more rails. He sees irony in proposals to dismantle Conrail, for example, the tax subsidized freight railroad that helps carry coal from Northeast and Midwest to shipping points just at this time. How about other lines? You come away from the Senate hearing pondering many things. Won't the great new Coal Era, beginning abroad, shortly spread here, too - where the coal comes from

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