U.S. energy boom still a bust for coal

Ray Sizemore operated a loader to load coal on a truck at a Pine  Branch Coal Sales surface mine near Chavies in December  2008.
Ray Sizemore operated a loader to load coal on a truck at a Pine Branch Coal Sales surface mine near Chavies in December 2008. Herald-Leader

What do a Russian energy oligarch and a Kentucky coal miner have in common?

They both hope America's shale-gas bubble bursts soon.

The United States is on track to overtake Russia as the world's largest producer of oil and natural gas this year, if it hasn't already, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday in a front-page article — "a startling shift that is reshaping markets and eroding the clout of traditional energy-rich nations."

How long this domestic energy boom will last depends on a number of variables.

The drilling companies must keep attracting investment to finance the expensive technologies to tap deeply buried shale deposits. Also, shifting public tolerance of the environmental impacts of these technologies could constrain production.

The Journal reports that a Pew Research Center poll last month showed opposition to fracking, the controversial technique for dislodging natural gas from shale, had grown from 38 percent to 49 percent over the previous six months.

As the United States imports less oil and gas, the energy boom is narrowing the trade deficit, although oil prices have not declined (no surprise).

Meanwhile, scientists in a new United Nations report say they are more sure than ever that the burning of fossil fuels — such as oil, gas and coal — is heating the Earth and raising sea levels.

In an overdue response to climate change, the Obama administration recently proposed limits on heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Even before the new limits were announced, all that cheap natural gas was costing thousands of jobs in Eastern Kentucky's coal industry as electrical utilities switched from coal to gas.

The U.S. Energy Department recently awarded a $3 million grant to the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research for its work on carbon capture. If it can be scaled up at reasonable cost — a big "if" — UK's technology could help preserve coal as a viable power-plant fuel in a carbon-constrained future.

Laid-off miners can keep hoping the shale-gas bubble bursts. But unless UK researchers can also figure out how to put big, cheap-to-mine coal seams back into the Kentucky hills, the global energy market is sending the region a strong message: Get busy building a post-coal economy now.