A green light for slurry coal

The US House of Representatives has a unique opportunity this week to help America's coal industry - and the often-neglected notion of US energy sufficiency. The House will vote on legislation that would, if passed, give federal rights of way to slurry pipeline firms. House members should vote yes on the measure.

Currently, some nine slurry pipelines are being planned around the US. The pipelines would carry pulverized Western coal mixed with water or oil from the mine to the customer - mainly electric utilities. In the process, new construction and maintenance jobs would be created; new energy sources would be developed (coal); and the US would be a somewhat more energy-independent nation than is now the case.

Given such obvious benefits, why has Congress not gotten around to enacting a slurry pipeline bill over the years? The first measure, it might be noted, was introduced back when John Kennedy was president.

The main obstacle to the legislation has come primarily from the nation's railroads, along with some Western farmers who are concerned about pipeline firms drawing down scarce water supplies. But the House bill affirms state control over water rights. Western farmers - and the needs of agriculture - will be protected. Thus, in the final analysis, it is the nation's railroads and rail unions that continue to throw up political roadblocks, and primarly because they feel financially threatened by the pipelines. Railroads transport about two-thirds of all coal.

The rail carriers argue that to grant rights of way to the pipelines would violate states' rights. The irony, of course, is that the railroads have precisely that very right of eminent domain now sought by the pipeline firms. Why should the railroads be able to prevent competitors - in this case, an entirely new industry and new technology - from having the same legal rights that the railroads themselves enjoy.

No one can say with certainty that new slurry pipelines would quickly become operational. The hurdles - environmental and financial - will be considerable. Yet, a number of firms are willing and eager to attempt to build pipelines. That being so, the reasons seem compelling for the federal government to grant them the opportunity they are seeking to go into business. The Senate once in the past threw its support behind a slurry pipeline bill. It would be expected to do so again as soon as the House gives a green light. The public should demand nothing less from the House than that green light.

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