The coal industry's future may have much more to do with building smartphones, wind turbines and missile defense radar than billowing smoke stacks and environmental finger pointing, say federal coal advisers and experts.
The direction of the industry is aimed at harvesting what are known as "rare earth elements," for which the U.S. industry depends on China.
The 19 elements are key ingredients in building complex electronics used in smartphones, jets, defense applications, advanced wind turbines and renewable energy, not to mention light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
The bottom line is that the U.S. needs to diversify its supply of the minerals, and the coal industry is the nation's best ticket to do that.
"To the extent that the administration is interested in and regards national defense as a strong national priority, I would think that they are very interested in securing a secure supply of rare earth elements that don't rely on China," said Paul Ziemkiewicz, West Virginia University's water research director, who is at the forefront of transitioning the coal industry into a source of raw materials and mineral security.
The U.S. uses about 15,000 tons of rare earth elements every year, with about 800 tons of that going to the defense industry, he said. "And that's for high-performance radars, sensors, magnets, some very specialized applications that [should] rely on a strategic reserve in this country."
In 2016 alone, the U.S. imported more than one-half of its supply of 50 types of minerals, eight of which are identified as rare earth elements critical to the economy, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Of those 50 minerals, the U.S. was 100 percent dependent on imports for 20 of them, including all eight critical and rare earth minerals. New data released this year showed that rare earth mining was nonexistent in the U.S. in 2016, while China continued to expand its market and dominate the global supply chain.
On top of the defense applications, rare earths are important in building consumer electronics such as smartphones, which most people now are dependent on.
"Our increasing reliance on foreign sources of rare earth elements, also known as critical minerals, is a national security concern that must be addressed," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told the Washington Examiner. "We can and should produce rare earth elements in West Virginia, instead of relying on China."
Ziemkiewicz's office is working with the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory on a pilot project to turn a string of coal mines across Appalachia into an interconnected processing facility for rare earth elements.
Phase-one planning for the project has been completed, and the university research center recently submitted its proposal to the Energy Department for phase two.
"So, the U.S. Department of Energy NETL is very interested in commercialization because of the national defense implications of having a secured, domestic rare earth supply," he said.
He is confident the agency will continue to fund the commercialization effort, given its support for the coal industry and despite President Trump's proposal to cut the budget of the Energy Department's fossil fuel office in fiscal 2018.
The National Coal Council, a top federal advisory board to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, also sees creating a new rare earth market as a necessary part in helping the coal industry recover.
The coal council wants to examine "new markets for coal" as it moves forward in its advisory capacity this year, said Janet Gellici, the council's CEO. Perry hasn't given the coal group its marching orders on a specific set of issues he wants it to focus on, but it is clear that the group will be looking at rare earth elements as a potentially huge area of growth.
"I think there is a lot of opportunity outside of just power generation," Gellici said.
Therefore, it is a top priority to address the new markets, ranging from selling carbon dioxide to help oil drillers get more out of existing wells to mining coal for rare earth elements.
Rare earth minerals can be extracted from coal in three ways. The first is what Ziemkiewicz calls "the fly ash angle," in which "you take coal, burn off all the carbon and leave the rare earths and everything else behind."
The second strategy is to mine coal "in such a way that you're selectively picking off the enriched parts of the binders and mineral matters associated with coal," he said. "And one way to do that is to approach coal tailings, often called refuse in the Appalachians. And that is to a large extent the total rock that is removed during the coal mining process minus a lot of the coal," he explained.
The third approach is the one Ziemkiewicz is looking at, called acid mine drainage, in which rare earth elements are selectively leached out "in addition to other stuff like iron and aluminum," he said.
"To give an idea of scale, Washington is right in the middle of the Pittsburgh coal basin. The Pittsburgh coal seam itself extends from just north of Pittsburgh all the way down to Clarksburg, West Virginia," he said. "And virtually all of that seam along the Monongahela River, and a lot of it along the Ohio River, has been mined out. So, you have all these interconnected mines full of acid mine drainage."
Gellici said the idea of using coal to extract rare minerals is a priority on Capitol Hill and an idea that is "getting some buzz." Even toward the end of the Obama administration, the Energy Department and the National Energy Technology Laboratory began supporting pilot projects like the one at West Virginia University, and she sees that support continuing under the Trump administration.
"I think industry is getting more interested in that opportunity, as well," she said. "It fits quite well with the administration's interest in energy security and balance of trade, since we are getting most of our rare earth elements from China."
It "fits in with support for the industry as well as pressing a couple of buttons that administration has got some interest in," she said.
Nevertheless, the push to develop new markets must be done in conjunction with developing technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal for electricity. The development of carbon capture utilization and storage, or CCUS, is a key part of the advisory group's agenda.
The technology captures a coal plant's carbon emissions, where the CO2 can be stored or used in any number of ways, from carbonating soda water for the soft drink industry to being used as an agent to extract oil or to help produce renewable biofuels from algae.
"That needs to continue, and that's a very strong message that's coming from our members," she said. "We do need to prioritize things. There is an urgency about the existing coal fleet. There is an urgency to develop these new markets, but let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater."
"We have got some good work done on CCUS developments and transformational technologies, and that work needs to continue," Gellici added.
The West Virginia delegation in Congress supports the programs, a major reason why the Obama administration stepped in and began funding opportunities to support new markets for coal. Manchin sent Trump a list of priorities for his state for the fiscal 2018 budget, placing priority on supporting the Energy Department's fossil energy office and the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Manchin said he has used his position on both the energy and appropriations committees to support the rare earths program and will continue to push for more funding for the coal programs at the energy lab.
"As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I fought to include $15 million for the extraction and recovery of rare earth elements and minerals from U.S. coal and coal byproducts in the 2017 funding bill that was passed in the beginning of May," he said. "I will continue to support NETL's critical work to ensure that we have the knowledge and tools to address our nation's energy challenges."
Manchin backs Trump's support for coal miners through the repeal of regulations such as the Clean Power Plan that would close coal plants prematurely in favor of renewables.
On top of that, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, supported comprehensive legislation last year that included creating a rare earth supply chain. The bill failed to move to former President Barack Obama's desk after a long process of negotiation between the Senate and House. She expressed frustration earlier this year with the United States' increased dependency on foreign imports of rare earth elements.
"Instead of lessening our dependence, we are actually increasing our dependence," Murkowski said at a hearing on the issue. She said the country was "not making headway."
Not having the elements "limits our growth, our competitiveness and our national security."