France draws a curtain on coal industry

When miners bring up the last lump of coal from La Houve pit in eastern France Friday, and close the country's last coal mine, they will be bringing down the curtain on a 200-year-old industry that defined the industrial revolution.

But old King Coal may not have spoken his last word in Europe, as the Continent worries about rising oil prices, the safety of nuclear power stations, and dependence on distant sources of natural gas.

"A comeback for coal is not out of the question," says François Cattier, an analyst at the International Energy Agency in Paris. "We Europeans see it as a fuel of the past, but we can't rule it out for the future."

Coal long ago fell out of favor in Western Europe, disparaged as dirty, dangerous, and dear. Associated in most peoples' minds with choking city smog and unsightly slagheaps at the pit-heads, "Coal does not enjoy popular sympathy," acknowledges Léopold Janssens, secretary-general of Euracoal, the European coal industry association.

Mines have been closing across Europe in the past 30 years, unable to compete economically with cheap coal from China, Colombia, or South Africa. Coal from the deep galleries of La Houve, for example, costs about $180 a ton, seven times more than strip-mined coal in the United States.

Only 16 British coal mines remain open, and in Germany their number has fallen from 179 after World War II to 10. But coal still fuels 27 percent of the EU's electricity generation.

That is less than the 48 percent of America's electricity produced from coal-fired plants, but it is still an important foundation of Europe's energy economy.

"Coal and lignite [brown coal] power plants will be the backbone of German electricity production for many more years," German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said last November.

Coal is especially important in the Eastern European states due to join the EU May 1. Countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, where open-cast mines are common, rely on the shiny black mineral for 65 percent of their electricity.

The fear factor

Brightening coal's potential in Europe, say analysts, is the fact that one of its main challengers, nuclear fuel, has fallen into such disrepute.

Traumatized by the accident at Chernobyl in 1986, and frightened by the prospect of dangerous nuclear waste, European governments have almost all turned their backs on a nuclear future. Only France and Finland have any plans to build new nuclear reactors.

Germany, Sweden, Belgium, and Italy have decided to phase out their nuclear plants as they age; the new Spanish government says it plans to do the same; and Britain has postponed a decision.

But Europe still relies on nuclear power plants for 35 percent of its electricity, and some in the industry hope that the political mood changes as policymakers face up to their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear plants, unlike their coal or gas-fired counterparts, release practically no CO2 into the atmosphere.

The EU has pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions by 8 percent from 1990 levels by 2012, in a bid to curb the greenhouse gases that are believed responsible for global warming.

The natural successor

Natural gas might seem the logical successor to nuclear energy. But to generate power on a large scale, coal's boosters point to the fact that Europe's own supplies of gas - in North Sea fields exploited by Britain and Norway - will have run out within 15 years, leaving the Continent dependent on Russia and Turkmenistan.

"From the point of view of energy security, we need to be more independent in Europe, and the area where Europe is least dependent on imports is coal," says Mr. Janssens.

Environmentalists are pushing for a greater reliance on renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and wave power, and in some parts of Europe the authorities see real potential.

The Scottish government, for example, plans to derive 40 percent of Scotland's energy from wind farms by 2020.

But windmills' effect on the landscape has upset local residents wherever they have been installed in Europe, and the IEA does not foresee renewable sources providing more than 9 percent of Europe's energy needs by 2030.

That, insists Janssens, leaves coal as a reliable, available resource whose price is less volatile than foreign oil or gas. "Our challenge for the next ten years is to prove that we have a valuable resource, and the technology to burn coal while respecting the environment."

"Clean burn" technologies, reducing dust and sulfur emissions, are under development, but the real problem is carbon dioxide, whose capture remains a theoretical but expensive possibility.

Since the Kyoto Protocol sets no greenhouse gas targets after 2012, "nobody knows what sort of carbon taxes might be imposed," Janssens says. "No one will invest today in a coal-fired plant with such an uncertain future."

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