Because coal will continue to provide a substantial portion of U.S. energy for at least the next several decades, a major increase in federal support for research and development is needed to ensure that this natural resource is extracted efficiently, safely, and in an environmentally responsible manner, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council. Policymakers also need a more accurate assessment of the extent and location of the nation's coal reserves, the report adds. It recommends an increase of about $144 million annually in new federal funding across a variety of areas.
Congress asked the Research Council to undertake a broad examination of U.S. needs for coal-related R&D -- focusing on resource assessment, mining, and processing -- and to recommend funding levels required to meet these needs. The committee was also asked to consider how best to organize federal coal research. It recommended that, rather than creating a single, integrated multi-agency R&D program, specific research needs should be addressed by partnerships among federal agencies and relevant outside groups.
Over half the nation's electricity is currently generated by burning coal, but future levels of coal use will be largely determined by the timing and stringency of regulations to control carbon emissions, the report says. Coal use over the next 10 to 15 years -- until about 2020 -- could climb as high as 25 percent above 2004 levels, or drop as much as 15 percent below them, depending on environmental policies and economic conditions.
By 2030, the uncertainty increases even more, the report says; coal use could range from about 70 percent above current levels to 50 percent below them. "Given the degree of uncertainty about future coal use, R&D policies need to accommodate a range of possible scenarios," said Corale Brierley, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of Brierley Consultancy LLC, Highlands Ranch, Colo.
The report adds that the coal mines of the future will face a variety of new and more difficult challenges, as more easily reached coal seams are depleted and the industry turns to less accessible reserves.
To formulate national energy policies, federal policymakers need accurate estimates of the amount, location, and quality of mineable coal. Such estimates are particularly important for community, workforce, and infrastructure planning. It is clear that there is enough coal at current rates of production to meet anticipated needs through 2030, and probably enough for 100 years, the committee said. However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply for the next 250 years.
The report recommends a federal-state-industry initiative to determine the size and characteristics of the nation's recoverable coal, with the goal of providing policymakers with a full account of these reserves within 10 years. The initiative should be led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, states, and industry, and will require additional funding of approximately $10 million per year.
Health and Safety
Many factors will increase risks to mine workers in the future -- the mining of deeper seams, for example, and of seams that lie over or under previously mined out areas. Research is needed to improve escape and rescue procedures, communications systems, and emergency preparedness, the committee said. It also recommended better training for workers in all aspects of mine safety.
Mitigating dangers from explosions and fires should also be a research priority, as should improving mine ventilation and the stability of roofs in mine shafts. Research should address how best to control methane from coal mines, both to prevent release of a potent greenhouse gas and provide a valuable addition to natural gas supplies.
And R&D should be directed toward reducing mine workers' exposure to dangerous conditions by developing better remote sensing technologies and increased automation of mining operations. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) should lead an initiative involving the Mining Safety and Health Administration and industry -- an effort that will require additional federal funds of approximately $35 million annually, the committee said.
Environmental Protection and CO2 Management
As mining extracts coal from deeper and operationally more difficult seams, new environmental concerns will arise, and existing problems will be exacerbated, the report says. Research will need to find ways to mitigate disturbance of groundwater and surface water systems, for example, and to minimize the risk of ground collapse over mined areas. It will also have to better determine how to mitigate the effects of past mining practices, particularly acid mine drainage on abandoned mine lands.
The report recommends an increase of $60 million annually for R&D on how to lessen adverse environmental impacts. The U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining should lead this initiative, with participation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, states, and industry.
If coal is to continue being a primary component of the nation's energy supply in a carbon-constrained world, large-scale demonstrations of technologies that can effectively capture and store carbon emissions will be needed, the report observes. USGS, working with DOE and the states, should lead a more-comprehensive nationwide assessment of geological formations -- for example, depleted oil and gas fields -- that could store CO2, the committee said. It estimated that this assessment would require USGS funding of $10 million annually for five years, to supplement DOE's existing research funds.
The rapid growth in productivity experienced by U.S. coal mines over the last three decades has slowed in recent years, and is now moving forward only incrementally, the report says. In the past decade, little research and development was directed toward developing technologies that could spur dramatic advances in mining productivity.
The report recommends a renewed research effort on advanced mining and processing technologies that would optimize use of the nation's coal. This effort should involve federal agencies and universities, as well as funding, guidance, and technology transfer from industry. The research recommended will require an additional $29 million in federal funds per year; an additional $30 million should be provided by nonfederal sources, including industry. DOE's Office of Fossil Energy should lead this initiative, with participation by the National Science Foundation, Office of Surface Mining, NIOSH, academic institutions, and industry.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.