Expert Report

Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy (2007)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Coal provides nearly a quarter of U.S. energy supplies and is used to generate more than half of the nation's electricity. Although future use of coal may be impacted by regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, coal demand is expected to increase over the next 10-15 years. At the request of Congress, the National Research Council conducted a study to examine R&D funding needs to support such "upstream" aspects of coal mining as worker safety, environmental protection and reclamation, coal reserve assessments, and mining productivity. The report concludes that an increased R&D investment is needed in these areas and recommends that an additional $144 million should be allocated. This R&D effort should be coordinated through stronger partnerships among federal agencies, with involvement of states and industry.

Key Messages

  • Findings emphasize the need for a reinvigorated coal reserve assessment program using modern methods and technologies to provide a sound basis for informed decision making.
  • Regardless of the precise levels of future coal production, the coal mines of the future will encounter a range of new or more difficult mining and processing challenges as more easily accessed coal seams are depleted and the industry turns to less accessible reserves.
  • The coal transportation and electric power transmission systems are large and complex networks in which localized disruptions can have severe and widespread impacts. Weather and other natural phenomena, as well as societal factors such as sabotage and terrorism, impose a range of risks on these systems. These characteristics make it difficult to guarantee that there will be sufficient capacity to transport coal or coal-based energy (primarily electricity) reliably and cost effectively to the various end users, particularly in light of scenarios that predict substantially increased coal use.
  • The committee concluded that rather than proposing a single mega-agency, improved interagency coordination to respond to specific R&D opportunities and challenges could be better implemented through cooperation among two or more federal entities in R&D partnerships, with involvement of non-federal bodies as appropriate.
  • The environmental impacts of coal use, especially carbon dioxide emissions associated with global climate change, pose the greatest potential constraint on future coal utilization. Decisions to invest or not invest in coal based power plants will strongly influence future coal use, and these decisions will depend in large part on the timing and magnitude of any future constraints on CO2 emissions.
  • These more difficult mining conditions will require improved methods to protect the health and safety of mine workers, careful environmental management of mined lands and waste products, and improved recovery to optimize use of the nation's coal resource.
  • While coal mining benefits communities during the productive life of a mine, after mine closure there is the potential for adverse affects that may include land use, safety, infrastructure and community development, and sustainability issues. The key to maintaining healthy communities after cessation of mining is early and comprehensive planning that involves all stakeholders.