Sunday, October 31, 2010
With maps of 675 square miles of his Illinois mines before him, Chris Cline recalls the moment he knew the coal in those mines would be worth billions of dollars.
It was 2002, and he and a competitor were on the phone lamenting how hard it was to find big deposits in central Appalachia. Cline, a miner's grandson, knew where to look instead. The next day, he decided to spend $300 million for mining rights, land and equipment in Illinois, betting on coal his rivals were abandoning. Cheap, plentiful and energy-rich, Illinois coal had a major drawback: It contained too much acid-rain-producing sulfur to be burned in most power plants.
Cline foresaw that the dwindling Appalachian supply, coupled with what he expected would be rules to force all power plants to add scrubbers to remove pollutants, would make Illinois coal attractive. If plants had to clean the coal anyway, Cline reasoned, why not use inexpensive Illinois stock?
He was right. Three years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required power plants to add scrubbers to cut emissions. As a result of that and other market forces, the value of Illinois deposits quintupled during the next five years, helping Cline raise $1.2 billion to build the mines that he's now parlaying into a fortune.
In an age obsessed with global warming and green energy, coal - a combustible rock that has generated heat for humanity for 5,000 years and still conjures up images of black lung disease and the England of Charles Dickens - is staging a defiant comeback.
Condemned by environmentalists who say that digging it mars the land and that cleaning it is impossible, and blasted by the World Health Organization for contributing to premature deaths, coal supplied 29.4 percent of the planet's man-made energy last year - the highest level since 1970.
Apologist for coal
If you've never heard of Cline, it may be because he's making his fortune far from Wall Street on the Illinois prairies - by digging up a rock humans have used for fuel since the Bronze Age.
Cline doesn't hang out in Hollywood or Silicon Valley. He's the principal owner of a private company, Foresight Energy, and until now has never spoken to the media.
Cline maintains his roots in West Virginia. He spends two months a year off the beaten track in Beckley, a town of 16,832 near where his grandfather mined coal with a pickax a century ago.
Chances are good that if you live in the eastern third of the United States - or even in parts of Europe - your home is lighted by electricity from his coal. Cline ships 11 million tons a year and may reach 80 million tons by 2018, giving him 7 percent of projected U.S. output.
Cline says he abandoned his policy of avoiding reporters - and his long-held belief that there's no such thing as good publicity in the coal business - because he wants to improve coal's public image on all fronts.
"We in the industry probably do the worst job in the world getting out the story of the good lives we're helping people live," Cline says. "Changing that is certainly a big interest of mine."