Since 1980, U.S. coal consumption has risen by almost 80%, yet sulfur emissions have been slashed by 40%. The development of selective catalytic reduction systems has eliminated 90% of nitrogen oxides. There are all sorts of scrubbers to trap particulates and trace elements.

These and other innovations have greatly reduced coal's effect on climate change. That's important, because the global economy would quickly shut down without coal.

Now, I've said before that affordable natural gas is displacing some coal-fired generating capacity. That's true in the United States, but that's not the case overseas. On a global basis, coal has been the fastest-growing fuel since 2000.

In China alone, coal is credited with providing power access to 450 million people in the past 15 years, according to the World Coal Association.

Consumption is projected to rise, not fall. Thanks to surging demand from Asia (which accounts for two-thirds of global usage), coal will meet 44% of the world's electricity needs by 2030, up from 40% today. And it's a thicker slice of a pie that grows bigger every year.

Europe is also becoming more reliant on coal in response to high natural gas prices and a backlash in some quarters against nuclear power. In India, imports of thermal coal soared more than 30% last year.

Also, China is planning to build 600 megawatts of coal-fired power generation over the next 25 years. This increase represents more than the current coal generating capacity in the United States, Europe and Japan combined.

Even 100 megawatts of additional capacity would require an additional 330 million metric tons of coal. China already burns far more than it can produce. In fact, the country had to import 182 million tons last year to cover the deficit.

Power generation is only half of the big picture...

Coal has several other important uses, most notably steel production. The world's mills produced 1.4 billion metric tons of steel in 2010. That production used up 720 million tons of metallurgical coking coal, which is used to make steel.

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