Coal Tattoo

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Peak coal is an important topic for coalfield communities, and one that we’ve covered many times on this blog. See previous posts here, here, here, and here.

For years, one of the major problems with coal policy has been the lack of reliable estimates for how much coal there is left that is mineable. Coal industry backers like to say there are hundreds of years of coal left.  But the National Research Council warned a few years ago that there was not reliable information available to support such conclusions.

Now, the U.S. Geological Survey has published its new National Coal Resource Assessment Overview, a detailed report that examines such issues. Erica Peterson over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting had a nice piece that explained parts of the study. But it didn’t hit on what some other experts have pointed out to me as the really important finding …

USGS officials projected that Appalachia will reach “peak coal” (my term, not theirs) in perhaps about 10 years — by 2020.  Check out the graphic above … Click on it to get a bigger version, or read Chapter H of the USGS study, Production and Depletion of Appalachian and Illinois Basin Coal Resources.

What is peak coal? Like peak oil, it is the point where the maximum rate of production is reached, after which the rate of production “enters terminal decline.

Here are some of the study’s key findings:

— The Energy Information Administration has estimated that there are about 53 billion tons of coal reserves in the Appalachian Basin. These reserve estimate, plus 2005 cumulative production (37.5 billion tons), equals about 90 billion tons as a potential for the maximum cumulative production of coal from this basin.

— Of the estimates reserves in the Appalachian Basin, about 40 percent is classified as high-sulfur coal. Although much of the high-sulfur coal may be technically recoverable, under current economic and environmental conditions, it is not generally economic.

— The potential reserve of low- and medium-sulfur coal in the Appalachian Basin is about 31 billion tons. Accordingly, the amount of low- and medium-sulfur coal reserves plus the cumulative production yields an estimate of about 67 billion tons for the amount of coal that may be produced from the basin under current economic conditions, technology and environmental restrictions.

Now, that is regarded, the USGS concedes, as a low estimate, because high-sulfur coal is currently being burned by power plants. But, the USGS says, it still provides “a reasonable estimate of the minimum amount of coal that may be produced from the Appalachian Basin.

They add:

Most likely, widespread use of flue-gas scrubbers and alternative users of high-sulfur coal, such as feedstock for synfuel plans, may eventually increase the amount of coal that will ultimately be produced from the basin, perhaps close to the 90-billion-ton estimate.


The large remaining resources of high-sulfur coal in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are currently uneconomic or have limited markets, will be the coal reserves of the future when competitively priced low-sulfur coal reserves in the central Appalachian Basin are exhausted and as the technology for mining, reclamation, and combustion improves. Indeed, these high-sulfur coals may eventually be used as the preferred feedstock for coal-to-methane synthetic fuel plants as prices for natural gas and oil increase.

OK … but that’s still all somewhat speculation by USGS. Their published report contains two “decline curves” that estimate how they think coal production — the high-sulfur issues aside — could play out in the region.

One of them, shown above, is based on the 31 billion tons of low- and medium-sulfur coal in the ground across Appalachia. According to the USGS:

… Annual production from the Appalachian Basin will fall below 200 million tons sometime between the middle and end of the 21st Century.

Of, if you consider just the 11 billion tons of low-sulfur coal in the region, the decline is steeper and annual coal production from Appalachia falls below 100 million tons prior to the middle of the 21st Century. Here’s that curve:


It’s most important to remember that these illustrations do not “illustrate potential changes in environmental regulations, technology and economics that might make more or less of the coal profitable to mine.”