IN EARLY 1977, President Carter committed the country to an energy policy that required a massive shift from imported oil to coal. A few months later, a long and ugly strike broke out in the coal fields, jeopardizing the coal supply and, with it, the whole coal strategy. That strike lasted 111 days and brought new attention to miners' grievances that lay far beyond the usual wage issues. The union was in chaos. The labor practices of some of the mining companies were out of the 19th century. The pay was good, but living conditions in the mining towns were poor. The work was dangerous. Absenteeism was epidemic.
When the strike finally ended, mainly through common exhaustion, a rematch seemed very much in prospect in another three years. For the White House, the question was whether the coal stategy remained a good bet. The president appointed a commission under the governor of West Virginia, John D. Rockefeller IV, to have a look.
Since then, the country has had ample further instruction in the cost of depending on oil from abroad. Meanwhile, the accident at Three Mile Island has, at best, impeded the nuclear alternative. The coal strategy is no longer a choice.The only question for the coal commission was how to reduce its risks.
The commission's report is relatively optimistic. But it makes no promises. Progress is possible in mining and burning more coal safely, it says -- but that progress will not be automatic.
Labor relations have improved significantly. Much of the industry, shaken by the last strike, has changed old habits. The union is now under stronger leadership. The commission notes that a lot of the young men who were drawn into the mines in the 1970s have become more experienced and mature. Wildcat strikes have declined 90 percent since the present contract went into effect.
But housing remains poor in the mountain communities. The commission thinks that the large landowners -- most of them mining companies -- have an obligation to make some of that land available for housing. Underground mining remains the most dangerous of all industrial occupations, and yet there are striking differences among companies' safety records. One of them, Westmoreland Coal Co., has an accident rate that is six times as high as that of the industry's leader in mine safety, the U.S. Steel Corporation.
Air pollution remains the most subtle and widespread health hazard raised by the coal strategy. The commission argues that present technology can control that hazard and, as new plants are built using that technology, more coal can be burned without specific increases in pollution. Unfortunately, its specific recommendations here are weak, and would require much less than the best that the current technology can do. Soon after the commission report appeared, President Carter brought out his plan for converting utility generators to coal. The president's plan takes much the same inadequate positon on environmental protection.
The ability of the mining industry to deliver the coal seems to be clearer than it was two years ago when the strike ended. The greater doubts are now attached to the electric utilities, and their ability to use that coal without poisoning the customers who live downwind of their smokestacks.