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Energy revolution, Chapter two: turning to US coal

America has a third of the world's coal and the world wants it. Chapter 2 of the global energy revolution that began with the curtailment of Persian Gulf oil in the '70s is now under way. This could be the "American chapter."

* It means a probable battle in Congress with the Reagan administration over extension of the Clean Air Act of 1977 that expires Sept. 30. This could set environmental guidelines for the new coal age.

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* It gives new significance to such interruptions as the present eight-week coal strike that follows the pattern of the contract strike of 1978 which lasted 111 days.

* It shows the need for improved rail, port, and boat facilities to carry America's coal to the world. At present US ports can't cope with demand.

* It means faster conversion of US utilities and factories to coal, which is delayed by lack of investment capital and high interest rates.

In general, observers here note that one of the biggest industrial transformations in history is under way. One offshoot, for example, was the disaster hitting the American automobile industry that didn't adapt itself in time to the oil scarcity and higher cost of gasoline. This, however, is just the beginning of the international changes likely to surround the move into the "new coal age," argue some industrialists. They see coal substituting -- temporarily at least -- for oil in industry. After that, who knows? Some see solar, nuclear, and other substitutes.

The US holds nearly 30 percent of the world's economically recoverable coal reserves, or some 200 billion tons, according to a recent study. Enormous difficulties, which may take 10 or 15 years to overcome, block use of this coal. Example: buyers might import 300 million tons a year of US coal but America's port facilities permit export of only around 90 million tons. Coal carriers ride for weeks off the port of Norfolk, Va., waiting for a chance to be loaded and paying penalty fees of as much as $15,000 a day per vessel.

"By 2000 the US could be exporting 300 million tons a year," says Ralph E. Bailey, chairman of Conoco Inc.

Here are some of the obstacles in the way: Rail service from mines to ports is inadequate and the government is reducing aid to railroads in its austerity budget. Loading and storage facilities at deep-water ports are inadequate, according to spokesmen for the American Association of Port Authorities Inc. Latest coal-carrying ships, or colliers, have drafts of 54 feet and some carry 80,000 tons of coal, but none of America's 180 deep-water ports has more than 45 -foot channels. Collirs of deeper draft that can carry 150,000 tons of coal are now planned.

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The National Coal Association, another domestic lobbying group, estimates the US lost exports of 100 million tons last year.

Meanwhile, at home the long-range consequences of the shift from oil to coal are likely to feature the coming congressional battle over the Clean Air Act.

The act authorizes the federal government in many instances to supervise America's industrial life. It pits environmentalists against business; "bureaucratic" regulation from Washington against local and state interests; and it causes delays in an increasingly uneasy energy situation. A tough governmental struggle seems certain between the Reagan White House and elements in Congress.

The first 1970 Clean Air Act asked the Environmental Protection Agency to establish safe concentrations for seven major air pollutants and set 1975 as the deadline for meeting national standards. State governments couldn't meet the deadlines, and Congress in 1977 extended the target to 1982. The problem with coal is that certain types liberate pollutants that cause severe hazards. Some produce so-called "acid rain." An industrial group -- the Business Roundtable -- last November charged the act will have cost industry $400 billion from 1970 to 1987.

Chairman of the Senate Environment Committee is Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont, considered a moderate liberal. Chairman of the equivalent House subcommittee is Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D) of California. President Reagan is expected to press for sweeping changes in the act.

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