Page 2 of 3   <       >

Coal's comeback

At his Pond Creek mine outside Marion, Ill., Cline, who at 52 has the rugged looks of actor Harrison Ford, turns effusive as he dons blue coveralls and a white hard hat. He ushers his visitors into a pickup that heads down a paved slope toward the coal.

This is ideal territory for long-wall mining, so called because it uses a machine with a 5.5-foot shearer to cut slices 3.5 feet thick from a coal seam that's 1,400 feet wide. Each day, Cline's long-wall machine extracts 35,000 tons, enough to power 2,800 U.S. homes for a year.

It's dangerous work that can rile up landowners when it causes property on the surface to drop by six feet. But compared with Appalachia, with its four-foot-thick coal seams and mines filled with water and mud, it's more like coal farming, Cline says.

Five hundred feet underground, the pickup emerges into a labyrinth of corridors alongside a conveyor that hauls coal to the surface. Cline beams as fist-size chunks rattle past.

"I like that," he says. "It's like the sound of coins when they're jingling."

Soaring consumption

Responsible for a third of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, coal is the main greenhouse gas producing climate change, the Government Accountability Office found in June.

CO2 in the atmosphere rose in July to 390.09 parts per million from 387.84 ppm a year earlier. The International Energy Agency, which advises 28 governments including the United States, advocates a limit of 450 parts per million to avoid catastrophic climate change.

"Coal is one of the most damaging materials in the environment, but it's not going away," says John Thompson, an analyst at Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. "By 2015, China will have three times more coal-fired plants than the U.S. They'll produce CO2 that will stay in the atmosphere thousands of years."

China opens a coal-fired plant each week; last year, seven workers on average died each day in Chinese mines trying to supply those plants, according to the nation's environmental ministry.

Global coal consumption may soar 58 percent from 2010 through 2035, the U.S. Energy Department says, making it a growth industry for the 21st century. Eighty-five percent of the increase will come in China and India.

Cline says he has read everything he can find on global warming and describes it as a real but exaggerated threat. He says he supports technologies that make the burning of coal cleaner. He says humankind will benefit more from cheap and abundant energy than from overreacting to what he calls minimal increases so far in atmospheric CO2 and the level of the world's oceans.

Cline was so annoyed when his children's teachers in Palm Beach, Fla., aired Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" that he asked them to distribute literature that showed that climate change may be caused by clusters of sunspots or the Earth wobbling on its axis, not just carbon. When they refused, he complained to school fundraisers.

<       2        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company