Peabody Energy’s Rick Navarre

The CFO of the world's largest private-sector coal producer toils in an industry often perceived as unsafe, environmentally unfriendly, and a poor investment compared with alternative energy forms.

What are you referring to specifically?

When you push legislation in a crisis environment, you tend to push it beyond the capabilities of the technology. PEDs, for example, haven’t been proven to work at every operation…. In addition, some of the legislation calls for having these in place within 30 to 60 days, and that’s just not practical.

It seems as though predictions about the resurgence of coal have been around for decades. What’s different this time?

As you look at the growing economies around the world, most are being fueled by coal because of the scarcity of other fuels. There hasn’t been a new nuclear facility built in decades. Here in the States, coal demand is expected to increase from 1.1 billion tons to 1.8 billion tons by 2030, fueled by the new power plants that are being built, the increase in GDP, and BTU conversion technologies. You’re really seeing the market opening up for additional uses beyond electricity and steel manufacturing.

Your CEO, Greg Boyce, recently predicted that coal will eventually displace gas and oil. Is that really feasible?

It’s already occurring in other countries. In China, they already have $15 billion invested in coal liquefaction. In South Africa, a large portion of the diesel fuel is created from coal liquefaction. Meanwhile, coal has a role in taking some of the pressure off gas prices in this country. When you look at $50-plus per barrel of oil, coal can be liquefied for $35 or $45 per barrel to create an ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel. The technology exists today. And look at how many large U.S. companies are getting into gasification. General Electric bought the technology from Chevron; Texaco is building gasification facilities, utilizing coal as a feed stock. That’s why you see all this optimism. You look for the alternatives and there aren’t many that are as abundant as coal, have proven technology, and are right beneath our feet.

As we head into the proxy season, shareholder groups are clamoring for more information about climate risk. How are you responding?

Since 1990, we’ve improved our carbon intensity by 40 percent, on a unit-of-production basis. Prairie States, a large, mine-mouth generating plant that we’re developing, will have carbon-dioxide emissions that are 15 percent below current levels. Longer term, though, these are incremental steps…. That’s why we want to continue to invest in technologies such as FutureGen [a federally sponsored effort to build a zero-emission coal-fueled power plant by 2012].

Finally, I have to ask: Do your kids get coal in their Christmas stockings?

They get coal stocks for Christmas. Everybody wants coal stocks for Christmas.

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