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Coal is critical to America's future

By Steve Miller, Special to CNN
  • Coal plays a critical role in keeping electricity affordable, says Steve Miller
  • Coal also promotes greater U.S. energy security, since we don't import it, he says
  • Miller: Coal-fueled power-plant emissions have declined significantly over the decades
  • Clean coal technology can create or support tens of thousands of jobs, Miller says

Editor's note: Steve Miller is president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry group. This essay is a response to a previous Opinion article, "Why America has to get off coal."

Soledad O'Brien's documentary, "Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America" airs at 8 p.m. ET Sunday, August 14 and 8 p.m. ET Saturday, August 20.

(CNN) -- Environmental interest groups recently rejoiced at the news that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's foundation was donating $50 million to the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign. However, this campaign -- if successful -- would do more than move America beyond coal. It would go a long way to moving America beyond jobs, economic growth, energy security and global competitiveness.

There are challenges inherent with using every energy resource. But if the United States backs away from any of our domestic resources because it poses challenges, we will soon find ourselves with fewer, more expensive supplies of energy.

The job before us is to provide political and private sector leadership that addresses these challenges. Rather than a plan to limit choices, these times require leadership to increase the sources of affordable, reliable, environmentally compatible energy. These times require leadership to spur competition that will hold down price increases and generate technological innovations to reduce emissions globally.

While the Sierra Club and Bloomberg spend their time and money pushing an agenda that would take energy options off the table, they instead should acknowledge coal's importance to the United States and focus on ways to use it more efficiently and with an even smaller environmental footprint.

Coal plays a critical role in keeping electricity affordable, even as household energy costs are surging upward. Ten years ago, families making less than $50,000 annually spent an average of 12% of their after-tax income on energy costs. Today, according to a report commissioned by the group I lead, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, they must devote 20% of that after-tax income now. Nonetheless, coal's affordability has reduced the climb toward higher electricity prices and helped prevent these overall energy percentages from spiking even more.

Coal also promotes greater U.S. energy security. It's a resource we don't import, and it's here in vast supplies. Based on today's usage rates, the United States has more than 200 years of coal reserves.

Another fact that the Sierra Club and Mayor Bloomberg ignore is the dramatic reductions in coal-fueled power plant emissions over several decades. Since 1970, emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants have been reduced by more than 56 percent and emissions of nitrous oxides have been reduced by more than 38 percent. During this same time period, the use of coal to generate electricity more than tripled. The promise of clean coal technology is already being realized.

With further investments in clean coal technology, we can create jobs, make the United States more competitive and build toward a future of using coal with nearly zero emissions.

A 2009 study done for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity by BBC Research and Consulting found that clean coal technology would create or support more than 150,000 skilled, good-paying jobs across more than 30 states. This next generation of advanced clean coal technologies, including capture and storage of carbon dioxide, can fuel a technology boom that powers our nation and our national economy.

Advancements and innovations in clean coal technology will be critically important in fast-growing, developing nations. Countries such as China and India will continue to depend on coal to fuel their economic growth, and American technological ingenuity can ensure that growth is cleaner and more sustainable.

Exporting this technology can also offset some of our growing trade imbalance. As James Fallows highlighted in The Atlantic last year, "China is now the leader in this area, the Google and Intel of the energy world." The United States must also be a global leader, and that requires a strong private-public sector partnership to accelerate deployment of clean coal technologies around the world.

Energy experts recognize the promise of this technology, including ways to reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases. In fact, President Barack Obama's Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage concluded last year that there were no insurmountable technological barriers that prevented carbon capture and storage from playing a role in the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The largest obstacle to expanding and accelerating deployment of clean coal technologies isn't technological, it's leadership.

Electricity generators are severely hampered in making critical and costly research and development investments because they don't know what the regulatory landscape will look like in the near future. Reasonable regulations that provide a fair measure of certainty will make it possible to enjoy cleaner air and water, but not cripple businesses and families with energy price spikes as we claw our way out of these hard economic times.

With a sustained reliance on coal, our nation can continue to generate affordable, reliable electricity for families and businesses 24-7 in a way that enhances energy security and meets our commitment to electricity generation with ultra-low emissions. America does not need to move "beyond" any of our domestic fuel resources. We need them all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Miller.