I am often asked about the future of coal in the United States. And I always respond by saying that's the wrong question. The right question is this: What is the future of coal globally?
Today the global need for coal to generate electricity and produce steel is rising, even as its use continues to drop in the U.S. This growth - and the need for infrastructure improvements - is especially important in cities with the largest coal exports, namely Norfolk, Baltimore, Houston, New Orleans and Mobile.
We need to build a 21st century network of highways, bridges, airports, railroads that would make it a lot easier and cheaper to ship Appalachian coal to Europe, South America and Asia, where there is increasing demand for U.S. energy supplies. Expanding coal exports is the key to keeping coal mines open and Appalachia's economy strong.
Roughly 10 percent of the nation's coal production is exported. Last year total exports were approximately 89 million tons, a 48 percent increase over 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The upturn in exports was particularly important in Appalachia.
But eventually, if this growth is to be sustained, there must be a major government investment in port facilities, railroads and inland waterways used for shipping coal. And, in the Pacific Northwest, additional coal terminals need to be built so that the U.S. can compete with other coal-exporting countries such as Australia and South Africa for Asia's lucrative coal market.
Exporting coal is in our national interest. America's exports of coal are playing a critically important role in reducing Europe's dependence on Russia's energy supplies. Two of our significant customers for coal are Poland and Ukraine, countries trying to break loose from Russia's political and economic grip.
Appalachia's unheralded role in Europe's quest for energy independence is something those who want to keep fossil fuels in the ground conveniently ignore. The billions of dollars of export revenues also contribute to the U.S. balance of payments deficit. But it illustrates the political disadvantages under which coal operates.
Exporting coal must be a key part of the answer to building a world with abundant energy. China, which consumes as much coal as the rest of the world combined and is by far the largest driver of the global coal market, is not America's largest coal customer in Asia. South Korea is.
The great advantage of coal is its low cost and reliability, both in the U.S. and worldwide. This is what helps explain the vast difference between coal and renewable energy sources. Coal can be stored at power plants around the world, whereas there is still no technology for large-scale storage of solar and wind power, requiring back-up electricity from fossil fuels on days when the weather isn't cooperating.
To meet the world's growing need for energy, U.S. coal should be front and center. China, India and many other countries need large amounts of power from coal to drive their economies and lift millions of people out of poverty. Just as it is here, coal is the bulwark of their electricity grids. By modernizing coal ports, the United States can ramp up its exports, something that is good for Appalachia and the world.
W.D. Blackburn has worked extensively in the U.S. and international coal industry and currently heads an energy consultingfirm, BLACKACRELLC, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia.