Who has time for slurry?

Slurry. It just doesn't have the 20th-century ring to it of, say, synfuels. Rather, it sounds like something from the bottom of a barrel in a Dickens novel. When one can concentrate on such futuristic energy sources as magnetohydrodynamics, who has time for slurry?

Recently, however, a great deal of public attention has begun to focus on this antiquated-sounding subject. Slurry is nothing more than ground coal mixed with water. But there are a number of American companies that would like nothing better than to develop, with private funds, pipelines which would carry the slurry mixture over the long distances from the coal mine to the point of end use. Legislation pending in both houses of Congress would provide them federal rights of eminent domain, thus enabling them to secure the rights-of-way necessary to complete these projects. While this may not appear to be the most exotic of issues, the benefits which would accrue to this nation are overwhelming.

First among such benefits would be the potential for lowered coal transportation rates which would result in lowered utility rates. Railroads currently transport 98 percent of all coal mined in the West and 85 percent of that mined in the East. With passage of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, rail rates were substantially deregulated, thus enabling the railroads to charge coal haulage rates which often exceed by 300 to 400 percent the cost of the coal itself. Coal slurry pipelines offer a competitive threat to this monopoly.

A second benefit would derive from the creation of numerous jobs and equipment orders for our nation's languishing pipeline and steel industries. A study of the economic benefits of seven proposed pipelines indicates that over 140,000 construction and manufacturing jobs would be created.

In addition, more than 3 million tons of steel pipe and over 4,000 pumping units would be required; all of which, according to current proposals, must be purchased from domestic manufacturers. This would not only help promote true economic recovery, but would help offset some of the adverse domestic impacts which resulted from President Reagan's decision to impose sanctions on the building of the Soviet gas pipelines.

In this vein, a third important benefit arises - the facilitation of United States coal exports, thereby offering our European allies an alternative to Soviet-produced gas. Skyrocketing rail rates and ports too shallow to accommodate deep draft coal colliers have seriously hampered America's ability to be price competitive in the world coal market.

Coal slurry pipelines would not only offer the prospect of lower transportation costs, but could also be adapted to so-called floating ports similar to those currently used for oil supertankers. Were stable supplies of US coal available at a competitive price, surely the decision to apply sanctions to the Soviet gas pipelines would have been greeted with less acrimony. I need hardly detail the benefits which would result to the US from large-scale energy exports.

Legislation to provide rights-of-way for coal slurry pipelines has progressed further than ever before. Bills have been favorably reported by all the jurisdictional committees of both houses of Congress, and now await consideration on the respective floors. However, these proposals, which are supported by everyone from the Consumer Federation of America and the Teamsters to the coal and utility industries, must overcome the ardent opposition of a single group - the railroads.

The degree of railroad antagonism becomes apparent from their reaction to the 1,500-mile coal pipeline proposed by the Energy Transportation Systems Inc. (ETSI). The railroads refused to grant rights-of-way for the project, forcing ETSI into court on 66 separate occasions. The resulting 2 1/2-year time delay was largely responsible for escalating the projected cost of the pipeline from $ 850 million to almost $3.5 billion, thus endangering its economic feasibility.

The railroads are no less committed to defeating legislative proposals which would avoid this untimely result. And once again, time is their greatest ally. The legislative days available during the lame duck session will be few, and the members pressing for action on other measures will be many. Each day of delay lessens the likelihood that the two coal slurry bills will be considered by this Congress.

This is indeed unfortunate. Coal slurry pipelines would create thousands of jobs, revitalize the US pipeline construction and manufacturing industries, offer lower coal transportation rates for consumers, increase coal exports, and hopefully demonstrate to our allies that we can provide an alternative to Soviet natural gas. In a Congress which has been burdened with unprecedented budget deficits, spending cuts, and tax increases, wouldn't it be nice to vote for something pleasant for a change?

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