|WASHINGTON - U.S. Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry pledged $10 billion over a decade to help U.S. electric utilities find cleaner ways to burn coal, the nation\'s most abundant energy source.|
In a bid to lure votes from coal-producing states like West Virginia, Kerry said that if elected he would offer incentives, like research grants, to encourage utilities to build coal-fired plants that give off almost no pollutants.
\"Coal is abundant, coal mining creates jobs and I believe that with the right investment and commitment coal can be an even cleaner part of America\'s energy future,\" Massachusetts senator Kerry said in a statement.
West Virginia\'s Democratic senators - Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller - endorsed Kerry\'s plan, as did unions representing utility employees and mine workers .
Byrd also accused President George. W. Bush of ducking a campaign pledge to invest $2 billion in cleaner coal plants over a decade. That promise helped Bush secure West Virginia\'s electoral votes in the 2000 election.
The U.S. Energy Department did not return calls seeking comment on Kerry\'s proposal.
KING COAL REDUX
Soaring prices for natural gas have sparked renewed interest in \"King Coal\" as a source of electricity.
The United States is increasingly dependent on foreign countries like Saudi Arabia for its crude oil but holds about a quarter of the world\'s recoverable coal reserves.
At about 270 billion short tons, that\'s enough to last over two centuries at current production rates, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates.
Coal-fired power plants generate about half of the nation\'s electricity supplies, but few new plants have been built over the last decade because of uncertainty over federal clean air standards.
Utility American Electric Power, which owns the biggest fleet of U.S. power plants, supports Kerry\'s plan.
\"This country needs to do something to reduce long-term demand and price volatility of natural gas,\" said AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp. \"The only way to do that at this time is the use of coal-fired generation.\"
AEP, the largest coal consumer in the Western Hemisphere, could build a new plant that uses so-called integrated gasification combined cycle technology, Hemlepp said.
This new technology supported by Kerry\'s plan would pulverize coal into gas before burning it, which substantially reduces harmful emissions.
The Energy Department estimates the nation will need over 100 new coal plants by 2025 to keep pace with growing electricity demand.
The department says it is on track to spur development of a cleaner fleet of coal plants.
Last month, it said it has received $6 billion in private-industry proposals for its clean coal initiative, with government funds to be awarded by year-end.
Story by Chris Baltimore
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE