[asa] Peak Coal?

From: Glenn Morton <glennmorton@entouch.net>
Date: Tue Mar 24 2009 - 07:05:27 EDT

It is now 10 years since I wrote the first draft of my short note to the ASA on peak oil. http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2000/PSCF12-00Morton.html#The%20Coming%20Energy%20Crisis. Back then, even in the oil industry, such views were considered to be a wee bit wacko and needlessly pessimistic. Today, the concept of peak oil is mainstream even while the worldwide drop in demand drops the price (which won't stay down long and is now slowly moving upward--$20 /bbl above the lows right now)

Anyway, I have been invested in coal, which is a very very volatile investment and not for the faint of heart, so I am interested in the coal supplies. Urban legend has it that the US has 200 years of coal supply at current rates of usage. This may not be true.

Over the past couple of years, as oil prices went up people started seriously looking at how much coal we have. The answers have not been comforting. First one must know how world coal reserves are determined. One would think that a geologist out in the field would be involved. Not always

"A look at how official global reserves are calculated does little to bolster confidence. The figures, compiled by a husband-and-wife energy consultancy called Energy Data Associates based in Dorset, UK, are gathered principally by sending out a questionnaire to the governments of 100 coal-producing countries. Officials are asked to supply figures under clearly defined guidelines, but many do not. About two-thirds of the countries reply,¯ says Alan Clarke of Energy Data Associates.And maybe 50 are usable." David Strahan, The Great Coal Hole¯ http://www.davidstrahan.com/blog/?p=116, which was published in New Scientist Jan 19, 2008

So, a bureaucrat was filling in forms. But as I said, as the price of oil rose, people started sending geologists out to find out how much coal they really have. And that brings me to my latest Science magazine, which has an article entitled, "How Much Coal Remans?"

            "In the last couple of years, forecasting coal production by Hubbert's approach has come into vogue, partly because geologists seemed to be having trouble assessing how much minable coal was left. For example, "40% of the world's coal disappeared in 3 years," recalls retired U.S. Geological Survey coal expert Harold Gluskoter. For the World Energy Council's triennial survey of coal resources in 1990, China cut its recoverable coal reserves-the amount of remaining coal geologists believe can be extracted with today's technology at today's prices-to one-sixth of what it had reported in 1987. The coal was mostly still there; the Chinese just decided they could extract only a smaller proportion of it."

            "Less dramatically, in 2007 a committee of the U.S. National Research Council that Gluskoter served on could not support the long-standing estimate of about 267 billion short tons of recoverable reserves in the United States. Divided by current U.S. production, the old estimate gave the oft-quoted figure of a 250-year supply for the United States. "We probably have 100 years. We don't know how much after that," says Gluskoter." Richard A. Kerr, How Much Coal Remains? Science, March 13, 2009, p. 1420-1421

The good news is that there isn't enough coal to drive the atmospheric temperature too high.

"Applied to 14 major coalproducing regions, Rutledge's method gives a world ultimate production of 660 billion metric tons. That's only one-quarter of geologic estimates of ultimate production, he says. And when combined with similar estimates of ultimate production of oil and gas, the total emissions of carbon as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide till 2100 are smaller than any of the 40 emissions scenarios that climate scientists have been working with for the past 10 years." Richard A. Kerr, How Much Coal Remains? Science, March 13, 2009, p. 1421

The bad news is that by 2069 90% of the world's coal will be gone and we will be sitting in the dark unless we find some new source of energy (uranium reserves are also production limited so don't look to nuclear) Since coal generates our electricity, you can figure that we won't be having the internet and lights by then. but then, as oil peaks and begins its decline we won't be planting 30,000 corn plants per acre on 20 square mile farms in Iowa or 1.3 million wheat plants per acre on similar sized farms in Kansas--can't run a tractor with an extension cord. So, there will be less to eat.

These views might be considered a wee bit wacko now, but, coal is a finite resource.

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Received on Tue Mar 24 07:05:45 2009

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