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Coal: comfort and caveats

The World Coal study (WOCOL) report is right. An optimistic message about energy is indeed "a rarity these days." And it is reassuring to learn that this 16-nation energy analysis finds that the world can meet its energy needs with the help of vigorous development of coal resources. But the caveats attached to this conclusion should be carefully heeded.

To begin with, the study stresses that coal will be only a gap-closer -- a fuel that can make up for shortfalls in global oil supply. All other energy sources must also be used to their maximum. That includes strong conservation measures. The study anticipates a 25 percent energy saving measured in terms of Btus per unit of gross national product. It's a stern challenge -- one to which the United States (among others) has only begun to face up.

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Secondly, the study assumes that coal use can be tripled without deleterious effects on the environment. Again, this is a theoretical promise held out by the fact that many nations in the study either have stringent environmental controls or are in the process of developing them. But the threat of acid rain that has arisen in North America and Europe shows that laws on the books do not necessarily protect the environment. What is needed is an informed awareness of the environmental problems and a cooperative effort by government, citizens, and industry to solve them. Resistance by industry to proper regulation only polarizes the issue, while unwise regulation for the sake of regulation compounds the problems.

Thirdly, as the WOCOL report emphasizes, its optimism about energy supply "is justified only if many decisions are taken very soon because of the long lead times required." That's a very tall order considering the investment that is required, the ships (perhaps a thousand) that must be built to support an international coal trade expected to grow tenfold, the mines to be opened and internal transportation to be organized in the United States which will be the premier coal exporter, and the environmental problems.

Carroll L. Wilson, who headed the WOCOL secretariat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he is encouraged by the fact that the United States has begun to increase coal production at a rate that would satisfy WOCOL projections. Nevertheless, he adds that he would not underestimate the challenge of continuing this production increase either.

The world has been given a reprieve from the gloomy prospect of economic decline due to energy shortages. But all nations must act on WOCOL's warning that "our most precious resource is time." Given this challenge, the United States has no cause for complacency in the prospect that it can become the "Saudi Arabia of coal" within a decade.