Coal has had a good run in the past five years – sweeping up the energy equivalent of the Academy Awards for best foreign film in four of them. (Though shot principally in China, these epic productions mostly starred American or Australian actors.)
Notwithstanding its bad-boy reputation as a despoiler of the heavens and the Earth, coal has emerged as the fastest growing of all fossil fuel. It works hard (especially when pulverized into powder and burned super-hot). It’s relatively cheap.
And it has substantially cleaned up its environmental act. Honest. Energy expert Robert Bryce says, for example, that the cleanest U.S. coal-fired electricity plants now exceed all traditional Environmental Protection Agency pollution standards. Combine these advantages and you have blockbuster box office.
BP’s annual statistical review reports that global coal production increased 6 per cent last year, twice the celebrated rate of increase in global natural gas production. This most notorious of fuels now accounts for 30 per cent of global energy consumption – the highest percentage since 1969. It will almost certainly account for more in the years ahead. It is, after all, one of the cheapest primary sources of energy in the world. And its reserves are, for all practical purposes, inexhaustible.
In a word, coal plays an increasingly important role in the great American energy renaissance. Oil production is on the rise. Natural gas production (and shale gas production) is on the rise. Coal production is on the rise. For the past five years, U.S. increases in coal exports have been quite remarkable.
Using 2005 as a base year, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that U.S. net coal exports increased 70 per cent in 2007, 107 per cent in 2008, 71 per cent in 2010 and 49 per cent in 2011. (In 2009, the year of the market meltdown, exports fell by a relatively restrained 23 per cent.)
Yet Americans themselves are consuming less coal – 5 per cent less in the past decade. As U.S. electrical producers shift from cheap coal to cheap natural gas, more coal will be released for export to other countries (where demand for coal increased by almost 50 per cent in the same decade, the energy equivalent of 23 million barrels of oil a day). Already the world’s fourth-largest coal exporter, after Australia, Indonesia and Russia, the U.S. could plausibly become the world’s largest exporter in coming years. The United States possesses more coal reserves, after all, than any other country.