One very shiny commodity of US export trade this year is coal. Year-end estimates indicate the mining indusrty will have shipped abroad a minimum of 30 million metric tons, a real improvement against the exports of 2 million tons in 1979.
There are two reasons for the sharp increase: (1) unreasonably expensive world oil prices have forced many countries to seek alternative energy sources - and coal is one of the cheapest and most readily available: (2) the United States, with the largest coal reserves in the world, is also the world's largest producer of coal - the place to buy.
Mining analysts say that foreign coal orders have been piling up so fast and in such heavy quantities that US exports of the fuel could have been even greater this year than the figure estimated. The problem has not been lagging production. It has been the lack of adequate port and shipping facilities.
A recent report made by the Utah Energy Office pointed the finger at West Coast port bottlenecks as a major drawback to foreign sales of coal from Utah and Colorado. If transportation were improved, the report went on, the million-ton reserves of these two states alone could furnish steam coal for 20 percent of the Asian market.
One escalating problem at most US ports - except Long Beach, Calif. - is harbor depth and channel clearance. More and more ships being used in the movement of coal require greater berthing and channel depths. Some ports will need as much as 60 feet. In most US ports handling coal, ships' Plimsoll marks register only a loading maximum of 40 to 45 feet.
Port commissions and authorities from Baltimore to Los Angeles have responded to the need for improved coal-moving facilities. Dredging and construction are already under way in over 20 coastal terminals. And plans are being made at other locations for faster processing of shipments. But at this juncture in the distribution chain, there is an admisistrative glitch - one not too quickly or easily solved.
Dredging at US ports has been handled over the years by the Army Corps of Engineers at government expense. At the present administration's urging, almost 20 new bills have been introduced in Congress to change (maybe speed up) both port imporvoment methods and ways of financing them. The basic premise in most cases is to charge user fees and perhaps to couple this idea with moderate government funding.
"The point is," said one West Coast port official, "we've got to hurry. The world wants and needs coal - now. If we can't build and improve our storage, berthing, and navigational facilities that can ship coal in quanties, than the business will go elsewhere. Remember, China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and Poland are all impressive coal producers."
World demand for imported coal is forecast by industry statisticians at more than 300 million metric tons by 1990.