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Buffett Bets Big On Coal

One of the big business stories today was that Warren Buffett is planning to buy Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which boasts one of the largest freight-rail networks in the country. Buffett told reporters that the move was "an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States." That's certainly encouraging. But there's also a less-noticed energy angle here.

Specifically, the BNSF railway serves a lot of coal fields in the West, including Wyoming's vast Powder River Basin, and hauls enough coal on its routes to supply about 10 percent of the electricity in the United States. So Buffett's essentially betting that coal's going to remain a major part of the U.S. energy mix for quite some time, even as the country moves to cut carbon emissions. (Via e-mail, Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch points out that Buffett also owns MidAmerican Energy, a large Western utility that owns 11 coal-fired plants and has fought hard against caps on carbon emissions.)

Is it crazy to bet on coal in the face of looming climate legislation? Eh, not really. As a new Greenpeace report points out, the House climate bill actually does quite a bit to ensure that coal has a bright future. There's $10 billion for research into capturing carbon emissions from coal-fired plants, plus billions more for deployment. And the bill exempted many existing plants from new pollution standards, which will enable utilities to keep some of their older, dirtier plants chugging along for years to come. Environmentalists have been lobbying to change some of these provisions in the Senate, but Buffett seems awfully confident that won't happen.

(Flickr photo credit: railtalk)