It's abundant, it's cheap, and it's found just about everywhere...
It accounts for about 40% of the planet's electricity usage -- more than natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar and geothermal combined.
It's the world's most preferred fuel for electricity generation, and people hate it... Even children don't like it. They're told if they misbehave, they could find a "lump of this" on Christmas morning.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm talking about coal. But before you tell me how the black rocks are the biggest threat to the planet since the last great meteor strike, hear me out.
There's no denying that coal gives off unwelcome pollutants. But plant efficiencies and technological advances have dramatically blunted the environmental impact -- and clean coal development continues to progress.
Still, many investors have been sold on the theory that coal is yesterday's energy source, not that of tomorrow. We're constantly told that fossil fuels are quickly becoming obsolete, and the future belongs to cleaner alternatives such as wind and solar power.
Don't believe it.
Don't get me wrong, I wholeheartedly support the pursuit of renewable energy sources (particularly those that are economically viable without taxpayer subsidies). But coal is still the king of the energy hill -- and it won't be knocked off for a long, long time.
Will coal eventually give way to other fuel sources? Probably. But it won't happen in the next quarter-century. In fact, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) is expecting global coal consumption to actually rise by 50% -- from less than seven billion tons in 2010, to 10 billion tons in 2030.
But before I get into the investment opportunity, let me briefly address the environmental aspect -- nobody likes the image of a factory belching pollutants into the sky.
I know coal isn't going to win any green awards. But much of the bad reputation is undeserved. The industry has actually made great strides in response to stringent air quality standards imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory bodies.
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 (SCR) systems has eliminated 90% of nitrogen oxides (NOx). And 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. And that's important, because the global economy would quickly shut down without coal.