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September 27, 2012

Battle of Two Old Titans: King Coal v. Growing, Getting-Cheaper, Cleaner, Princely Natural Gas.

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Justin Sullivan/CSM

If you follow the news, you can hardly ignore the news that there is a lot more accessible natural gas underneath us than thought even ten years ago, and that we are now going dog nuts in a guilty and often messy blitzkrieg extracting it.

It's not fashionable these days, I know. But if I really think about it, my law practice, most years, most days and recently, has had something to do with fossil fuels: various forms of petroleum, natural gas or coal as fuels or pollutants--from producing, using, mixing, transporting and storing them to cleaning them up. Thirty-three years ago, "constrained abundance" was the term used to describe coal reserves in the breakthrough book Energy Future edited by Harvard Business School's Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin. And the writers of the chapter on coal, Mel Horwitch and Frank Schuller, would still be right about that: there is still lots and lots of the fossil fuel that helped transform America from a farming to an industrial nation.

Coal. There is still lots and lots of it--of different grades and sulfur content--in the ground around the world. Maybe two centuries worth in North America alone. Generally, it's been and still is plentiful and cheap but dirty stuff.

Yet not so cheap in recent years. Apart from the fact that environmental regulations on air pollution made it much more expensive to burn coal, the price of cleaner-burning natural gas and synthetic natural gas has trended down in recent years. There is more of "the energy prince of hydrocarbons" (another wonderful fuel tagline from Energy Future in 1979) than we had once believed. You can hardly ignore the news that there is a lot more accessible natural gas underneath us than thought even ten years ago, and that we are now going dog nuts in a guilty and often messy blitzkrieg extracting it.

Various environmentalist groups, of course, applaud the decline of coal. But there are obviously tough regional economic problems--and that human cost we all forget about in our policy arguments with friends and co-workers on "energy security"--for later generations of coal-producing workers and their companies all over America. But I like the fact that coal is still an election issue, even if it's a waning issue. Yesterday, though, The Christian Science Monitor did a nice job on coal as an election issue this year. See "War On Coal"? Why Obama Might Not Be Industry's Worst Enemy.

Posted by JD Hull at September 27, 2012 11:44 PM

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