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Coal supply estimates overoptimistic, report says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Frequently touted projections that the United States has a more than 200-year supply of coal left are overly optimistic and hold the nation back from considering cleaner fuels, according to a new report from a group that backs a transition away from fossil energy.

Colorado-based Clean Energy Action said federal government figures -- frequently cited by the industry and its political supporters -- overstate the amount of remaining U.S. coal that can be economically mined.

The group's report notes that the Central Appalachian coalfields are playing out after more than a century of intensive mining activity, with depleted reserves being a major reason for the ongoing decline in the region's production.

And in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the group said, many of the largest mines have significantly less than 20 years of remaining coal. Proposed expansion areas often have coal that is buried more deeply than what is currently being mined, making them less economical, the report said.

"The point of this report is that the fundamental constraint on coal is not from natural gas prices or government regulations, but from the geology of coal," said Zane Selvans, a geologist and assistant director of research for Clean Energy Action.

The report concluded, "The planning horizon for moving the United States largely past using coal for electricity production is something significantly less than 20 years."

"Independent of decisions about future environmental regulations, utilities, utility regulators and investors should avoid making investments in aging coal infrastructure on coal cost and supply issues alone," the report said.

In a statement, the National Mining Association dismissed the report as "a politically motivated analysis" authored by a group "with an anti-fossil fuel bias."

"Objective analysis by the Energy Information Administration affirms the ready availability of more than a 200-year U.S. coal supply, and based on NMA analysis, this is a conservative estimate," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the industry group.

During last year's presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney frequently touted the nation's coal reserves in criticizing Obama administration policies he said hurt the industry.

"We have 250 years of coal -- why wouldn't we use it?" Romney said in speeches and campaign ads.

But in a major report five years earlier, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the best estimate it could confirm was that U.S. coal reserves would last less than half as long as Romney projected.

"The United States is endowed with a vast amount of coal," said the report, written by a panel of geologists, engineers and industry officials for the National Academy's National Research Council.

"Despite significant uncertainties in generating reliable estimates of the nation's coal resources and reserves, there are sufficient economically mineable reserves to meet anticipated needs through 2030," said the report, written at the request of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

"Further into the future, there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation's needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption," the report said. "However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted suggestion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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