Who could blame you if you did? We face a government that some believe wages war on coal. Newspaper headlines report oceans of shale gas awaiting fracture. Enviros sue to block every coal plant, blaming coal for everything from shrinking ice flows to weak Christmas sales. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out if you had any.
But this is the small picture about coal, not the big picture. And it’s the big picture you should be mindful of in 2012. To see it though, you have to literally look outside the news bubble here in this country to the worldwide market for electricity and steel, where coal has been…is today…and for decades will continue to be The King.
According to the latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal will remain by 2035 the dominant source of electricity in the world’s largest economies and comprise 30% of global energy demand. That’s up from 25% in 2000. Put another way, coal demand is forecast to grow by 600,000 tons every day over the next five years. And when the IEA looks at anticipated generating capacity coming on line by then, it finds coal will account for more than a third—far more than any other competing fuel.
Coal has been the world’s fastest growing fuel for more than a decade largely because first China and then India have turned to coal to power Asia’s industrial revolution. Much as coal powered the first industrial revolution two centuries ago in Europe, coal is repeating that trick today on a colossal scale an ocean away. Asia’s revolution is by no means over, either. In India alone, about 400 million people lack electricity, which means they lack healthy food, clean drinking water and basically what we call civilization. They call it “electricity poverty.”
If you were one of today’s 1.4 billion poor people without electricity, or among the 3 billion with little access to it, ask yourself if you’d care where your juice came from. Electricity poverty isn’t recognized here because there isn’t any. But without coal, millions of the world’s poor will remain in the darkness of poverty without the benefits of ordinary necessities we take for granted.
Here’s the best part: what the world seems to want more than ever is what we have in abundance. With the world’s leading coal reserves pegged at 488 billion short tons, U.S. producers are in an enviable position. As Mae West wisely observed, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” That’s certainly true for U.S. coal mines, whose exports of coal to generate the world’s electricity and make its steel, climbed last year to a record 100 million tons.
Some developing countries have a lot of coal too, but not enough to feed economies growing at between 8% and 12% per year. Nor will they have the expertise and the infrastructure to bring all the coal they have from distant, remote regions to heavily populated urban regions where demand is greatest.
This is little remarked on today, just as we ignored a crucial event in 2007 that likely changed coal’s fortunes. That was the year China first became a net coal importer, supercharging demand for coal and permanently changing world trade routes. Coal regions that formerly served the Eurozone now serve Asia, leaving underserved EU markets for U.S. producers. PRB coal once destined mainly for Eastern Seaboard cities now targets Asian markets as well. We’re no longer just swing suppliers to foreign markets, but valuable suppliers, especially now that a post-Fukashima chill on nuclear power is making more room for base load coal capacity.
Don’t you feel happier already?
Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.