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Monday, May 21, 2007
A riddle: Campbell County, Wyoming, is 1,800 miles from Lamar County, Georgia. So how did 500 acres of Campbell County end up in Lamar?
I'm currently reading John McPhee's book Uncommon Carriers, about industrial transportation. He cruises on barges, hangs out with truck drivers, figures out the mechanics of overnight airfreight, and much more. Yesterday, I read his chapter on coal trains.
Plant Scherer's coal comes from Arch Coal's Black Thunder mine, the U.S.'s most prolific coal mine. BNSF Railway dedicates 36 coal trains to Plant Scherer. These 36 trains spend their entire existence traveling the 1,800 miles from the rail loop at Black Thunder in Wyoming's Powder River Basin to another loop at the Georgia plant. The round-trip takes about 10 days.
A loaded coal train weighs 23,000 tons and stretches almost two miles. For comparison, mixed cargo, auto transporters, and container trains may weigh as little as 4,000 tons. Nothing rolls on rails heavier than a coal train. Every year, Plant Scherer burns through 1,300 coal trains – 2,000 miles of coal cars.
Before 1970, the Powder River Basin was a beautiful grassland stretching for hundreds of miles. Geologists knew immense coal deposits lay buried underneath, but the coal in Wyoming produced 30% less heat than Appalachian coal, so no one cared.
In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act. It required power plants to burn low-sulfur coal. Wyoming coal has one-fifth of the sulfur as Appalachian coal. Suddenly, every power plant in the country wanted to fire its furnaces with Wyoming coal. Today, 63 coal trains haul 1.5 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin every day. Even at this rate, there's still enough coal there to last another 200 years.
But, Wyoming coal's relatively low sulfur content hardly has the Sierra Club embracing places like Plant Scherer.
Just picture how the coal gets unloaded. Plant Scherer has the most efficient unloading operation in the country. It unloads a coal train in 30 minutes. The train pulls onto a trestle at 3 mph. Compressed air opens bay doors in the floors of the coal cars, and the coal drops onto a mound below the trestle.
"The cars were unloading like sticks of bombs..." writes McPhee. "The uncontrollable dust far below had the look of an occurring disaster, the spreading clouds dark and flat as if they were derived from incendiary bombs."
Plant Scherer burns through the coal from one train in less than eight hours.
Now think about this: Coal produces 55% of this country's electricity and - apart from nuclear - it's the cheapest source. Generating 1 million BTUs of power requires $9 of fuel oil or $6 of natural gas, writes McPhee. It takes$1.85 worth of coal. The Department of Energy predicts that electricity demand will rise 41% by 2030. New coal-fired plants, it says, will meet 54% of this increase.
So what does the future look like for the Powder River Basin? Here's a clue: Plant Scherer owns 12,000 acres of vacant land around its existing plant. It's earmarked for expansion.
While there's no "pure play" in Powder River Basin coal, Arch Coal comes pretty close. The company generates 71% of its production from the region. It operates two mines there, Black Thunder and Coal Creek. The railroads – UP and BNSF - are potential plays. You can also check out FreightCar America, the largest manufacturer of coal gondolas.
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