For almost 100 years oil has been at the center of the world's economies. When oil prices go up, as they have recently, other forms of energy become more attractive. Now coal, which was the essential fuel prior to the development of fuel oil and gasoline, is getting a second life, as nations look to secure their energy futures. VOA's Tim Wardner reports.
Half a century ago, before the domination of automobiles and petroleum, they called this stuff 'king coal'. Now, with petroleum at record high prices and emerging economies like China and India using energy sources they produce and needing more, coal is gaining new importance in filling US and world energy needs according to Jack Gerard of the National Mining Association.
Jack Gerard, President, National Mining Association "As many of these nations that are big coal producers and historically been exporters are consuming it domestically and it's driving up overall prices around the world."
Some coal prices have even doubled in the past several years.
'Part of that is the increased demand for electricity. Coal in the US provides over 52 per cent of our electricity and it's becoming a much more valuable commodity around the world."
For the U.S., coal is at the foundation of its energy security.
"At current levels of consumption, we have at least 250 years of coal reserve in the United States."
Still, there remain ongoing concerns about how increased demand for coal will effect the environment.
JOHN WALKE, DIRECTOR CLEAN AIR PROGRAM, NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL "Air pollution from burning coal has been probably the single biggest contributor to air quality problems in the United States for at least the past 4 or 5 decades or longer."
Environmental advocate John Walke is concerned that new demand for coal energy could mean going back on environmental regulations that help clean up coal burning and that new cleaner burning technologies will be lost in the rush to meet increased demand.
"The technology is there. It's is the political will we're missing."
But the coal industry says it supports new technology that can clean up coal burning emissions in the future, if it is cost effective.
"Those technologies exist. What we have to do is take it to commercial scale."
The coal industry stagnated over the past several decades when prices and investment in equipment were low. A few years ago only a handful of new coal fired electric generating plants were planned, today over one hundred are being considered.
"Over the next 2 decades we will need 40% more electricity in the United States that we have ever had. In order to meet that demand it has got to come from coal."
Coal has also been called 'black gold', and if prices remain high it is once again just that.