Federal energy officials say there is little they can do to alleviate the effects of the coal strike, which now threatens to throw hundreds of thousands of people out of work in America's industrial heartland in the next few weeks.
Following a series of weekend meetings with federal, state and utility officials, energy Under Secretary John F. O'Leary said yesterday if the strike goes on much longer, that despite government efforts it "will have a major impact on umemployment and industrial activity in the ninestate region dependent on union coal."
Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana so far face the most serious problems.
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) said over the weekend that from 500,000 to 700,000 workers could be forced off their jobs in Ohio over the next two or three weeks because of the strike. "We have a lot of desperate people out there in Ohio, and I'm not sure this has come across yet," Glenn said. Last year Ohio was severely affected by crippling natural gas shortage and the record winter cold snap.
Officials point to actions they can take, such as forcing the allocation of coal from one area to another, ordering utilities to share electricity, and helping states monitor coal stockpiles to help officials decide when they must order curtailments.
However, there are limitations to each of these steps.
"Coal allocation sounds delightful," O'Leary said of the Energy Department's standby plans to move coal from one utility plant to another, "but the problems of getting it from here to there are overwhelming."
Coal is not an interchangeable fuel such as oil or natural gas; utility boilers are designed to burn particular grades of coal, and what burns efficiently in one boiler may not in another. Most utilities have conveyor systems that will move coal in only one direction - onto the stockpile, not off.
Another problem, whether or not coal is moved from one plant to another, is that coal at the bottom of stockpile is wet mixed with dirt often partially oxidized. Thus it usually has a lower heat content.
David Bardin, head of DOE's coal strike task force, said utilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana with between 26 and 50 days' supply face the greatest problems.
"Some of these utilities are going to be in mandatory power cutbacks to industrial customers one after another," he said, adding that the first curtailments will probably come within two weeks.
Once the strike is settled, DOE experts say, it will take three weeks before supplies are moving at normal rates from the mines into utility boilers. With a minimum of 10 days required before the United Mine Workers could ratify a new contract, and the talks deadlocked, at least some curtailments are nearly inevitable.
There are also problems with utilities' sharing power. While DOE can call on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue emergency orders to force such shifts, utilities with fuel lack the generating capacity to make up a massive shortage.
In addition, most Eastern utilities are operating at a high percentage of their capacity now because of the cold weather, and additional power would have to come from their least efficient generators. This makes the additional electricity very expensive, a cost that would have to be borne by the utility asking for it. Regulators in power-short states, therefore, have been reluctant to permit widespread sharing.
Finally, while state and federal officials have been working together to monitor declining coal stocks, the decision to order curtailments by industrial users must be made by state authorities - and so far they have not been willing to do so.
Last Friday Duquesne Power and Light Co. of Pittsburgh, which is now down to about a 25-day supply, asked the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to allow a 25 percent mandatory curtailment starting Tuesday. Gov. Milton J. Shapp, however, has not declared a state of emergency and the commission thus far has not approved the utility's request for curtailments.
Aside from Duquesne Power, DOE officials are closely watching Indiana Gas and Electric Co., which last Friday reported it had a 39-day supply, and Columbus and Southern Ohio Power Co., which has a 45-day supply, some of which is frozen.
O'Leary has dispatched federal power experts to Canton, Ohio, to monitor the power supply in the center of the region dependent on coal for 90 percent of its electrical power.
DOE has also cut back electrical power at a high energy physics test facility near Chicago, and is working with the Defense Department to cut back military use of electrical power in the northcentral region of the country.
"We will be seriously stretched if the strike continues much longer," O'Leary said, adding, "we are doing all we can."