Peak Coal?

February 12, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

We’ve heard a lot about “peak oil” in the last few years, but coal industry officials and their supporters are always quick to tell us we have hundreds of years of coal left in the ground.

But now, some researchers are starting to strongly question this assumption.

I first wrote about this issue in June 2007, when the National Research Council published a report which warned that federal policymakers did not have accurate estimates of the amount, location and quality of mineable coal:

It is clear that there is enough coal at current rates of production to meet anticipated needs through 2030, and probably enough for 100 years.  However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply for the next 250 years.

More recently, Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog made me aware of a U.S. Geological Survey study which  warned that all was not well in Powder River Basin of Wyoming, the nation’s most productive coalfield:

The total original coal resource in the Gillette coalfield for all eleven coal beds assessed, and no restrictions applied, was calculated to be 201 billion short tons. Available coal resources, which are part of the original coal resource that is accessible for potential mine development after subtracting all restrictions, are about 164 billion short tons (81 percent of the original coal resource).

Recoverable coal, which is the portion of available coal remaining after subtracting mining and processing losses, was determined for a stripping ratio of 10:1 or less. After mining and processing losses were subtracted, a total of 77 billion short tons of coal were calculated (48 percent of the original coal resource).

Coal reserves are the portion of the recoverable coal that can be mined, processed, and marketed at a profit at the time of the economic evaluation. With a discounted cash flow at 8 percent rate of return, the coal reserves estimate for the Gillette coalfield is10.1 billion short tons of coal (6 percent of the original resource total) for the 6 coal beds evaluated.

Then today, the group Clean Energy Action has issued a report further questioning the oft-cited optimistic estimates of the nation’s existing coal reserves.

“Americans often assert that there is a ‘200-year supply’ of coal in the United States, but the truth is almost no one has ever investigated the claim,” says the report’s author, Leslie Glustrom, a member of the Colorado-based group. Among the findings:

It appears that rather than having a “200-year-supply of coal”, the United States has a much shorter planning horizon for moving beyond coal-fired power plants. Depending on the resolution of geologic, economic, legal and transportation constraints facing future coal mine expansion, the planning horizon for moving beyond coal could be as short as 20-30 years.

Read more discussion of this at Climate Progress, and  thanks to Tom Rodd and his Appalachian Coalfields Climate Change Forum, for bringing the new study to my attention.

3 Responses to “Peak Coal?”

  1. E. B. says:

    A couple resources on “peak coal” in WV.

    1) WVGES ongoing research on coal recoverability. (does anyone have link to what they’ve published so far?)

    2) Chapter J of this report

    3) USGS’s Robert Milici
    a) peer-reviewed article from International Journal of Coal Geology finds that annual Appalachian coal production will be less half (about 40%) of its current levels by mid-century

    b) Useful power point on Appalachian coal production (see slide 26 et seq., “Projections for Appalachian and Illinois Basins”)

    4) If you ask EIA, they can break down their annual energy outlooks by coal-producing region. EIA usually makes a pretty rosy assessment of future fossil demand and production, but even their rosy econometric modeling, based on labor productivity and other factors, nonetheless would indicate that Central Appalachian annual coal production will fall to nearly half its current levels by 2030.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Cathy Coffey at the industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, sent the following along:

    Saw your blog on Peak Coal. As you may or may not know, when we advertise we must demonstrate the accuracy of our statements. We have substantiated the “more than 200 year supply of coal” statement numerous times. Here’s the math:

    The Energy Information Administration estimates the U.S. had recoverable reserves of 264 billion short tons of coal as of January 1, 2007, the latest period for which data are available.

    (U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal Reserves Current and Back Issues. Release date: October 29, 2007. Paragraph six. U.S. recoverable coal reserves as of Jan. 1, 2007.

    By computation, based on current consumption of 1,125.2 million short tons a year, those reserves of 264 billion short tons would last more than 230 years.

    (U.S. Energy Information Administration. Basic Coal Statistics. Last Updated: April 2007. U.S. Consumption.

    Ms. Coffey said she generally doesn’t post comments to blogs because of the “virulent hate mail” that comes her way after, so let’s everyone be nice, OK?

  3. Oil Crash says:

    I believe that peak oil is true and that we are now past the point of peak oil. I believe many of the current events have to do with this understanding and it won’t be long before the main stream media and population wake up and understand what is going on. For me and my family, we are preparing for the life after the crash.

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