Front Porch Blog

Even coal (clean or not) will not save the US way of life

(Its a huge honor for Jerome to allow this to be cross-posted. He’s probably the most read blogger on energy issues in the entire English speaking world. Thanks Jerome! – j-dub)

Adapted and extended from the European Tribune

This is not about how horribly polluting coal is. It’s not about how dangerous coal mining is. It’s not about how much it contributes to carbon emissions and thus to global warming.

No, this is to fight the meme that coal is plentiful.

Graphs like that above allow people to make the point that
the USA could at least resolve the issue of dependency on foreign oil by switching to plentiful domestic coal.

I’d like to flag that this is absurd.

The International Energy Agency, in its future scenarios, suggests that world demand for energy is set to double by 2050, with demand for coal to increase by 300% over the period (i.e. it will quadruple).

At the same time, we hear that coal is plentiful, with 155 years of reserves at current production rates. (For the US more specifically, which has 25% of world reserves, these would last 250 years again at current production rates.

Of course, these two points are absolutely incompatible.

If you consider a linear growth in demand for coal, the average demand over 2005-2050 will be 2.5 times current demand, which means that we’ll have used 112 of these “reserve-years”, and, at 4 times current production in 2050, we’ll have about 10 years left of reserves worldwide at that rythm of production (not even considering if these reserves will actually be accessible and usable at such rates).

The same calculation for the USA, if you consider that demand for coal on current trends (+71% between 1975 and 2005) is roughly set to double, would lead to conclude that in 2050, at those then prevailing rates of production, the USA would still have 90 years of coal reserves.

That unfortunately presupposes two things:

  • US coal is not exported to other countries – which means that the rest of the world will run out of coal before 2050;
  • usage of coal is not expanded to other uses like transport (currently, it is only used for electricity generation and steel production);

That last point is of course impossible if the whole point is to be self-sufficient: coal is then supposed to be used to produce fuel, via CTL (coal-to-liquids) technology (as touted for instance by Gov. Schweitzer). But the problem then is that, in order to replace 5% of
current oil consumption (1 mb/d), you need 20% of current coal production (roughly 100 million tons), not to mention absolutely staggering volumes of water. So to replace the 12 mb/d currently imported (not to mention the larger volumes required in the future), coal production would need to be increased by 250% right away.

So suddenly we’re not talking about doubling coal production by 2050, we’re talking about quadrupling it quickly, and then increasing it along with demand. And hey, presto, US coal reserves run out before 2050 (without, remember, solving the coal problem of the rest of the world…)

So, even if we choose to ignore pollution and global warming (pretty damn big ifs), it’s simply not going to happen. Coal will run out almost as quickly as oil, especially if we boost consumption in the near term to try to move away from imported oil.

Thus, even in the rosy scenarios of the EIA and other “don’t panic” agencies, we hit the wall in less than 50 years. Is that so far away that we should not start planning for such a life-altering event? If not us, our kids or grandkids will still be alive then. Is that where we want them: in the wall?





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