Southeastern Kentucky's economy has thrived on coal production for decades, but what if the Commonwealth or the entire nation relied on the coalfields of Appalachia for transportation fuel. That's what some engineers and state leaders are pushing for. Some say such a huge demand, would bring more jobs and more money as well, but could Kentucky coal operators handle the job?
More than one billion tons of coal is already being produced. President of TECO Coal, Bob Zik, knows that number all too well. He says if Fischer-Tropsh plants are built to convert even a portion of that coal to fuel, Kentucky could boom.
"Coal production could increase by another half billion tons and that's just a huge demand. It'd be a big boom for the economics of all coal producing regions," Zik said.
Zik says the biggest drawback is the demand for people to produce the coal.
"Right now, there's a shortage of labor in the coal industry and this would put a lot more stress on the coal industry and would make it more promising for young people looking at coal mining," Zik said.
So what about the amount of black gold left? Some question if there's enough coal for Kentucky's economy, let alone fueling part of the nation's transportation.
"All the best coal has been mined previously. It's just more difficult to mine these days and it's more expensive to mine," Zik said.
With a supply that Zik says could at least support the next generation, engineers say the next step is getting the state and federal government on board.
"If someone could guarantee that crude will be at 70 dollars for the next 20 years, then people will start building Fischer-Tropsh plants and make a lot of money operating them," said Dr. Burton Davis.
"There has to be some incentive to maintain some bottom price per barrel so these plants would be somewhat subsidized should the price fall below a certain level," Zik said.
Zik says that needs to be done through some sort of tax incentives or government appropriations.