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France draws a curtain on coal industry

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When miners bring up the last lump of coal from La Houve pit in eastern France Friday, and close the country's last coal mine, they will be bringing down the curtain on a 200-year-old industry that defined the industrial revolution.

But old King Coal may not have spoken his last word in Europe, as the Continent worries about rising oil prices, the safety of nuclear power stations, and dependence on distant sources of natural gas.

"A comeback for coal is not out of the question," says François Cattier, an analyst at the International Energy Agency in Paris. "We Europeans see it as a fuel of the past, but we can't rule it out for the future."

Coal long ago fell out of favor in Western Europe, disparaged as dirty, dangerous, and dear. Associated in most peoples' minds with choking city smog and unsightly slagheaps at the pit-heads, "Coal does not enjoy popular sympathy," acknowledges Léopold Janssens, secretary-general of Euracoal, the European coal industry association.

Mines have been closing across Europe in the past 30 years, unable to compete economically with cheap coal from China, Colombia, or South Africa. Coal from the deep galleries of La Houve, for example, costs about $180 a ton, seven times more than strip-mined coal in the United States.

Only 16 British coal mines remain open, and in Germany their number has fallen from 179 after World War II to 10. But coal still fuels 27 percent of the EU's electricity generation.

That is less than the 48 percent of America's electricity produced from coal-fired plants, but it is still an important foundation of Europe's energy economy.

"Coal and lignite [brown coal] power plants will be the backbone of German electricity production for many more years," German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said last November.

Coal is especially important in the Eastern European states due to join the EU May 1. Countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, where open-cast mines are common, rely on the shiny black mineral for 65 percent of their electricity.

The fear factor

Brightening coal's potential in Europe, say analysts, is the fact that one of its main challengers, nuclear fuel, has fallen into such disrepute.

Traumatized by the accident at Chernobyl in 1986, and frightened by the prospect of dangerous nuclear waste, European governments have almost all turned their backs on a nuclear future. Only France and Finland have any plans to build new nuclear reactors.

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