A decade or so ago, it seemed neat and clear: The vast seams of coal that underlie much of the American landscape were to be the quick fix for the nation's energy addiction.
Great western coalfields would open their bounty. Power plants at mine sites would send electricity humming over long lines to the East. Other plants would convert coal to petroleum and synthetic natural gas. Pipelines would carry slurry - crushed coal and water - to generating stations outside the West.
That was to be one answer to energy demand in a world of fast-depleting pertroleum reserves and rapidly rising prices charged by foreign producers.
But the energy boom from coal, particularly the tapping of the huge deposits in the West, has not happened. Economics, regional rivalries, politics environmental and social concerns and technological problems have conspired to prevent it.
Yet the sheer size of the nation's deposits remains irresistible. They are at the heart of President Carter's energy plan. Shifting his emphasis eastward, the president has set a basic goal of doubling coal production by 1985.
But even as Carter struggle to get his energy bill through Congress, there is bad news from the East: the crippling United Mine Workers strike, again underlining the difficulty of transforming policy into practice.
To be sure, western coal has great appeal. A little more than half of the country's recoverable reserve lies in easily mined, thick seams close to the surface in the western states. In such quantity and with its lower-sulfur content, giving it priority for burning in power plants, the West's coal is enormously attractive.
Coal policy planners in the Nixon and Ford administrations talked privately of another appeal of the West - the UMW's relative weakness in that region made the prospect for steady coal-mining without labor problems a key.
But the main problem with Western coal remains: it's in the West.
So the Carter plan, without saying so specifically, goes the other direction. Spurred by worried miners, governors concerned about economics erosion in the East and environmentalists, the administration's coal development approach hinges in part on labor-management peace in the East.
Beyond that, a central premise of the Carter plan is that coal should be mined as closely as possible to where it is burned.
This, in effect, means an end to the idea of opening the vast western coalfields as a power source for the east. The Carter policy would be carried out in the east and midwest - areas rich with coal, although much of it is high sulfur - by requiring power generating plants to use the best air pollution control technology available.
With these controls, eastern coal, which generally has a higher energy content than coal from the west, could be burned more readily in power plants within the region. The market advantage of the western coal is thus diminished, eastern miners' jobs and capital investments protected.
Overall, of course, an idea guiding the past three administrations has been to wean the country from its heavy reliance to oil and natural gas as basic energy sources. U.S. coal reserves in the massive western and Appalachian deposits contain the energy equivalent of millions of barrels of oil.
Carter's plan to double coal production by 1985 would increase coal's share of the energy market from 18 percent to nearly 30 percent - replacing the equivalent of more than 6.5 million barrels a day in high-cost oil imports.
For every additional 100 million tons of coal the nation uses, the United States will reduce its foreign oil payments by $5 billion. Last year alone, the country spent nearly $48 billion on foreign oil.
But even with that economic bait, the big boom in coal envisioned 10 years ago seems still to be a thing of the future. These are some of the factors that contribute to the crazy-quilt coal development picture: The Congress
On Capitol Hill there is no disagreement that coal must play a central role in helping to slake the thirst for energy. The disagreement comes over questions such as how the federal government should encourage and support development.
In the past three years, congressional efforts have touched virtually every area - the social impact of development, transporation problems, subsidies to companies, health and safety of miners, federal leasing policy, environmental controls, research on coal cleaning and new combustion technology.
The president's energy package, with changes by Congress, hangs in balance. It contains a wide range of incentives to promote the use if coal - from subsidies, guaranted higher prices for coal-derived gas to mandatory use of coal under industrial boilers in place of oil and natural gas. The Fallout
In the case of coal, federal legislation has contributed - or will contribute - to major changes in the way that coal is mined.
The health and safety of miners is one area. A stringent federal safety law in 1969, toughened last year, has played a part in holding down mining fatalities. But industry argues that the regulation has also contributed to a substantial decline in productivity.
Environmental is another area. In this instance, two laws supported by the Carter administration would foment the development of eastern mining - or, in a reverse sense, slow the pell-mell strip mining of the west.
One law is the package of 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act. That requires that all coal-fired power plants, which account for slightly more than half of the country's electricity, be equipped with the "best available" pollution control devices.
That means that all plants - whether they burn coveted low-sulfur coal or not - would have to have the same control devices. Thus removing the advantage of low-sulfur western coal.
Along classic regional lines, eastern legislators supported the administration proposal for "best available" technology. Westerners opposed it.
The other law is strip-mine control legislation that President Ford twice vetoed. Carter endorsed the legislation, signed it into law and is now in the process of putting it into effect.
The aim is to reduce environmental damage caused by poorly regulated stripping - water pollution, acid drainage, denuding of fertile land and forests, landslides - and require coal companies to restore mined land to productive use.
In other environmental areas, more alarm bells are ringing over the potential for damage from coal combustion: the release of heavy metals and carcinogens into the atmosphere, the problem of residue disposal after coal is cleaned and burned. Public Lands
Coal executives argue the greatest impediment to producing more western coal - 80 percent of which is on federal lands - has been the Interior Department's leasing program.
Another element in the debate is a mounting tide of opposition of western ranchers and farmers who fear that wide-open leasing policies will displace them and undercut their access to scarce water supplies.
As a result, during the 1970s, leasing has come to a standstill. The reasons are three-fold:
Interior suspended leasing in 1971 because of suspicions that the coal companies were taking out leases and holding them for speculation, rather than exercising "due diligence" required by law to produce the coal.
A tougher mineral leasing act in 1975 placed even greater requirements on the companies to quickly produce coal from their leases and give smaller firms more opportunity to enter the market.
Most important, a protracted legal battle over the adequacy of environmental impact statement issued by Interior during the Ford administration has tied up leasing of western coal lands for years. Transporation
Another impediment to carrying coal from the Great Plains states eastward is an inadequate transportation network.
Railroads now haul more than 65 percent of the nation's coal and would have to carry even more in the years ahead - but they will need help. The General Accounting Office estimates that the railroads would need $10 billion in private and public funds to handle the doubled coal production Carter wants.
One alternative to railroads is the coal slurry pipeline, which could carry pulverized coal more economically than the railroads. No major slurry lines, however, have been constructed because the necessary right-of-way legislation has been bottled up in Congress for years.
Slurries are vigorously opposed by the railroads, environmentalists, and western ranchers and farmers who argue that slurries would place an even larger draw on the west's scarce water supplies.
Another factor is the shift from the planners' idea of huge power plants to be built at the western strip mines. Because of changing economics, lack of water, and the voltage loss inherent in moving electrical power across the continent, this scheme - once a keystone in the government's western coal plan - has lost its glitter. The Companies
Made up of more than 5,000 "operators," as the companies call themselves, the coal industry is hardly a monolith. The firms range from tiny, mom-and-pop mines to Fortune 500 outfits.
At the same time, however, major oil companies such as Exxon, Standard Oil Co. of Ohio and Continental Oil have rapidly increased their share of coal production and - more important - their new coal reserves. The majors now control more than 44 percent of the nation's coal reserves. As a result, the structure of the industry has received increasing scrutiny.
Since the Arab oil embargo in 1973, coal prices have moved sharply upward, trailing the fourfold increase in oil prices. Industry profits have kept pace with sharply increased prices. But executives such as Edwin R. Phelps of Peabody Coal Co., the world's largest, complain that the government's shifting on-again off-again coal policies have tended to hold down earnings and discourage opening new mines, which require extensive planning and lead-time of several years.
Moreover, coal executives say that the millions of dollars required to open new mines can only be justified if they have long-term contracts from industrial users in hand. Wavering federal policies and industrial demand, they add, have perpetuated an uneasy rollercoaster for coal since World War II. Following peak production of 631 million tons in 1947, coal went into a decline during the next two decades, only to turn around in the early 1970s. But last year U.S. mines produced only 40 million tons more than in 1947. The Miners
The machines are massive and the technology complex, but men still are needed to mine coal. More than 200,000 men and women work in underground and strip mines in an occupation that is statistically the most dangerous in the country and surely one of the dirtiest.
Unrest in the industry is endemic. Miners complain of the operators' callousness toward their safety and working conditions. Operators complain of the miners' cavalier attitude toward their jobs and their willingness to strike rather than pursue grievances through channels. Miners respond that the system is loaded against them and that the wildcat strike - albeit illegal - is their only real weapon for expressing their discontent. Millions of tons of production are lost annually through wildcat strikes.
No one is saying so very loudly in Washington, but one thing is clear: The miners' problem is as much the nation's - or president's - problem as any other. For Carter's energy plan to work, a stable and unified work force and labor-management harmony would seem essential.
Without miners, there is no coal.