Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2.6: What is the impact of peak oil and peak coal?

[Yesterday, my page views hit a peak — 35,000. I take that as a sign readers are very interested in this subject. Here I present calculations I haven’t seen anywhere else, and since different sources provide different numbers, please view this as a crude estimates. I welcome corrections.]

The goal of this post is to explore how peak oil and, yes, peak coal might affect the world’s effort to stabilize CO2 concentrations.

At recent growth rates for oil consumption, we are all but certain to peak in oil production within two decades — and if we follow the recent trend-line for coal use (and for coal reserves), we could hit peak coal within three decades. It looks like it simply isn’t possible for oil and coal use to sustain for decades the trends that led CO2 emissions to rise 3% per year since 2000, if the analysis below is roughly correct. That would be a very good piece of news.

OIL: I have already written at length on oil (see “Peak Oil? Bring it on!”, longer version here). In 2006, the world consumed about 85 million barrels a day (MMBD) of oil. Oil use had been rising about 2% per year, though the recent price jump may have slowed things a tad. And, for the first time, not just the “peakists” but the CEOs of major oil companies think we have a big, big problem.

The CEO of Royal Dutch/Shell emailed his employees, “Shell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand.” The CEO of French oil company Total S.A., said that production of even 100 million barrels a day by 2030 will be “difficult.” The CEO of ConocoPhillips said, “I don’t think we are going to see the supply going over 100 million barrels a day.”

COAL: World coal consumption and production in 2006 was about 6 billion metric tons according to the World Coal Institute. World recoverable reserves at the end of 2005 vary by source, but the World Energy Council puts them at 850 billion metric tons, which seems to be a relatively typical figure. Thus, global coal reserves would last some 140 years, at current rates of production and consumption. That said, global coal reserve estimates are of “poor quality” and may be lower than we think, as one recent German study noted (here). The U.S. National Academy of Sciences made a similar point about U.S. reserves last year (here):

Present estimates of coal reserves are based upon methods that have not been reviewed or revised since their inception in 1974, and much of the input data were compiled in the early 1970’s. Recent programs to assess reserves in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually minable reserves.

It is worth noting that estimates of world recoverable coal reserves have declined slowly but steadly for two decades by a total of about 15%, more than 150 billion tons. Indeed, they have dropped 7% from end of 2002 to end of 2005, according to the WEC. As one energy analyst put it (here), “Reserves figures are dropping far more quickly than actual extraction.” For further analysis suggesting reserves are still very inflated, see the German study and this webiste by Professor David Rutledge of CalTech.


I’m going to run through two scenarios to explore the impact of fossil fuel resources on carbon emissions trends.

CASE 1: The first scenario uses the Princeton assumptions from their wedge analysis that carbon emissions will increase 1.5% per year through 2050 (a rate that is based on the pre-2000 trend). For now, I will also assume global carbon emissions in 2006 were 8.4 billion metric tons, the number the Global Carbon Project (GCP) uses, while acknowledging that the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) both have lower numbers (see here and here, if you’re a masochist).

[I’m also going to assume that the fraction of global emissions that coal is responsible for stays the same through 2050. That number, as Roger Pielke, Jr. noted in the comments on an earlier post is 36%, or 3 GtC in 2006. In other words, I’m going to assume that all fossil fuels grow at 1.5% per year through 2050 — remember, this is a BAU case, not what we expect to happen at all.]

By 2050, then, everything nearly doubles. Global carbon emissions are 16 GtC — bye, bye climate — of which 5.8 GtC is coal. We would be consuming over 160 MMBD of oil. That isn’t going to happen. Hard to know exactly what gives, but it doesn’t look like we have the oil (and presumably the natural gas) to get anywhere near that number. Coal use would be 11.5 billion tons a year. Actually, it would have to be more if we peaked in oil by, say 2020, at 106 MMBD. We’d probably start turning a fair amount of coal into oil starting by the 2020s — assuming, again, a BAU case where we don’t care about the climate policies.

CASE 2: Now let’s see what happens if global carbon emissions keep rising through 2050 at the rate they have been growing from 2000 to 2006, about 3% per year. Global carbon emissions in 2050 would be about 31 GtC — uhh, bye, bye everybody!

[Given that we easily maxed out oil (and presumably gas) in Case 1, I’m going to assume that they both max out again at a 1.5% annual rate of growth, and therefore that all the rest of the growth in CO2 beyond Case 1 is from coal. Thus coal generates 5.8 GtC as in Case 1 PLUS all of the difference between 31 GtC and 16 GtC, which is to say about 15 GtC. And so the total coal emissions in 2050 is roughly 21 GtC — 7 times the current level.]

In Case 2, coal use in 2050 would be 42 billion tons a year. But, in fact, at that pace of growth, we would have used up all of the current existing recoverable reserves before then. And even if we somehow miraculously doubled global coal reserves during that time, we would only have another 20 years of coal left at this rate of consumption!

CONCLUSION: I believe peak oil and peak coal will in fact interfere with the path that carbon emissions take in the first half of this century to a very great (but difficult to quantify) extent. That is a terrific piece of news for the planet (though, sadly, we have more than enough coal to destroy the climate if we burn most of it).

It is, however, a so-so piece of news for energy and climate modelers, because we lack solid numbers that are widely agreed upon for

  • how much oil reserves we have
  • how much of a role unconventional oil could play in the next few decades (especially if we exclude much coal to liquids because we’re using all the coal up for other uses), and
  • how much coal reserves we have now, or might have in a couple of decades.

As I’ve said, Part 4 of this series will look at the politics, policies, market factors, and mindset needed to achieve the 14 to 16 stabilization wedges discussed in Part 2 (here). In that post (next week), I’ll also consider qualitatively how peak oil and peak coal will affect those factors. That should give readers a few days to go over these numbers and find my mistakes!

[And yes, when I am finished with this series, I promise to put up a post that links to every part, with a brief summary, for ease of referral.]

39 Responses to Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2.6: What is the impact of peak oil and peak coal?

  1. Robert says:

    Your 2 cases assume that we keep using fossil fuel until depletion stops us. The rate of growth and timing does not matter much – the only thing that really matters is the size of the reserves and the fact that we expect to convert all of it to CO2.

    On the available evidence to date some variation on these scenarios (in which we burn all available fossil fuel) is most likely. That is why the real challenge is to get the world to agree to leave as much of it in the ground and NEVER use it.

    Improved efficiency and other hi-tech solutions do not give you this assurance. Getting more efficient in our use of fossil fuel simply increases our level of dependence, so when all fossil fuels eventually go into decline we have a larger global population enjoying a higher standard of living. Sounds good, but not really, because CO2 levels will still be maximum and the potential economic and population crash that much more severe.

  2. Joe says:

    I mostly agree. We need to leave the coal especially in the ground. We need to accelerate carbon free power. We need efficiency to stretch that power, not the coal.

  3. John Mashey says:

    0) As for senior oil folks who certainly think peak Oil is Coming Soon, one can add:
    Lord Ron Oxburgh (ex-Chairman of Shell),
    Don Paul, recently-retired CTO of Chevron

    1) Does anyone think we’re not going to burn all the oil and gas we can get (bounded by limits like EROI, money, water, etc) I think the real argument is over coal.

    2) And it’s both good and bad. Like I said before, IF one thinks that biophysical economists like Charlie Hall, or Robert Ayres+Benjamin Warr make any sense, GDP growth is *strongly* affected by useful work = technical efficiency * exergy (primary energy). This fairly different from the standard 2-3% CAGR forever predictions [used in IPCC and Stern Report]; see page 34 of Ayres talk, in which US economy flattens at levels depending on efficiency. I’m no economist, but IF there is anything to this, I’d observe that flat economies don’t help long-term investments (like research, I’m afraid)…

    The size of the problem is shown by Charlie Hall at The Oil drum (look for graphic in the middle of the post).

    To even stay even on the part of GDP that depends on energy, one must stay even on total work = (efficiency * (fossil + renewable)), and when fossil oil, then gas drop, we’d better have been going all-out on every kind of efficiency (as Joe always says, as does a friend of ours who is a retired Vice-Chairman of Chevron) and building renewables as fast as we can. Recall that the Hirsch Report thought we should start seriously 20 years in advance.

    The danger of course is that we wait too long, and in desperation to keep the lights on and transport going, we will burn more coal and do CTL big-time, and we know where that leads climate-wise. Of course, for people who own coal production That’s Wonderful.

    Going as far as Heinberg is just too depressing, but we have to face up the the fossil fuel economic downdraft.

    Hall, et al, The Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics.

  4. Robert says:

    Even if CSP (for example) becomes the cheapest way to make electricity, and electric cars become the vehicle of choice, this still doesn’t solve the problem. Fossil fuels are so cheap and versatile that we will still end up using it all, for example to make liquid aviation fuel from coal as oil runs short.

    Most of the world is less organised that the US. It is far easier to mine coal and sling up a coal fired power station than to build 1000’s of square km of CSP and a DC distribution grid. China and India are still fast-tracking our coal-fired industrialisation route from the 19th century, with Africa hard on their heels. This reinforces that the real challenge is to get them all on board a “no coal – leave it in the ground” policy as the very first priority. Having some good technological alternatives (such as CSP) may make it a little easier for them to swallow though.

  5. Peter Wood says:

    Much of the discussion about ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak coal’ and so on assumes that the production curve is symmetric (Hubbert peak analysis is a typical example). I suspect that this curve (in a business as usual case) will have a long tail, because price increases will result in the extraction of previously uneconomic resources. Production curves so far have been affected by substitutability of imported oil.

    What this means is a greater area under the curve, which will be bad for our climate.

  6. Ken Levenson says:

    Robert, congrats on finally get an answer out of Joe! ;)

    Joe, you conclude by saying you think peak coal and oil will have a great, if indeterminate, effect on the path of carbon emissions – but all the paths you outline lead off the cliff, no? If so, (with the risk of annoyance) what is the relevance exactly? – the climate modelers? So they can tell us we’re going to fry with 8 degrees rise instead of 6 or vice-a-versa? It seems to me that the climate models are all pointing to the cliff as it is – so we’re just going to get a better pre-death coroner’s report? I guess I’m missing the “terrific news” part.

    Like Robert has pointed out, the relevant conclusion that I get, is that we must leave as much fossil fuel in the ground as we possibly can. And as everyone seems to agree, oil is just so damned useful for all sorts of things that it’s destined to all be extracted – and so we need to focus on stopping coal extraction. And by 2020 (per Hansen) we need to start bulldozing existing coal power plants.

    I think the wedges, if they don’t already, (I don’t think they do but I readily admit to not understanding all the specifics of the wedges) should incorporate a plan to phase out coal extraction/use, leaving a substantial enough amount in the ground to make a big difference. Would the place be in the efficiency wedges?

  7. Joe says:

    We need a carbon price high enough to keep the coal in the ground.

  8. Ken Levenson says:

    Rereading it, regarding “terrific news”, “interference” is the operative word. If so, I’d tend to disagree, as I tend to believe we’ll surely act like the “drug” addicts we are and race through whatever fossil fuel we can find at full speed no matter the obstacles. Another reason for a moratorium on coal power. Okay, I’m going to plug my first post, I can’t help it: “A Simple Proposal: A Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty” –

  9. Ken Levenson says:

    I see, but the drugs/coal/carbon will need to be really expensive. (I’ll go back and reread your posts on carbon pricing now. ;) )

  10. Mike Treder says:

    One of my big worries is that “Peak Oil” won’t actually occur for at least another few decades, long enough that atmospheric CO2 easily could reach 450 ppm by 2050 and maybe 550 ppm by 2100.

    Part of my concern is that I’m old enough to remember hearing warnings about declining oil reserves since the 1970s. Yet it never comes to pass. And now, with Arctic sea ice breaking up, who knows what will be found in new deep sea drilling there?

  11. Eli Rabett says:

    Peak uranium also has to be an issue if we go with more nuclear. That and reprocessing/thorium cycles, etc.

  12. John Mashey says:

    1) I recommend The Last Oil Shock, see the Depletion Atlas in particular. David Strahan’s book is useful. WIkipedia entry for Peak Oil is not bad.

    2) Also: Kennneth Deffeyes’ “Beyond Oil – The View from Hubbert’s Peak” is good, and if you really want to get into Saudi Arabia, Matt Simmon’s “Twilight in the Desert” is a great source. Finally, The Oil Drum is a good resource.

    3) In the 1990s, I helped sell supercomputers (probably $500M worth) to oil companies worldwide. Why did they spend? Because it was getting a lot harder, both to find it, and more important to model the reservoirs to extract a higher fraction of the oil there.

    4) The EROI issues I alluded to are *really* important, as are other limits [like water] – recall that in Athabasca, they burn a lot of natural gas and need a lot of water to produce the oil. At some point, no matter how high the price of oil goes, if the *energy* cost of getting it gets too high (EROI goes down), they stop doing it, under normal economic circumstances. [Obvious exceptions: German use of CTL during WW II, since coal doesn’t work directly for tanks or planes.]

  13. Mark Shapiro says:

    Yes, leave it in the ground. Make it worthless, even undesirable, as well as uneconomic. THAT will take some work.

    So keep up the good work on CHP, CSP, PV, all the efficiencies. (They work so well together!)

    And don’t forget simple conservation. No sense consuming everything.

  14. Mark Shapiro says:

    Just a guess, but I want to posit that the core of the challenge is ending the mindset that ever growing consumption, of fossil fuels in particular, is a good thing. That suggesting otherwise is terrifying, threatening. Suggesting otherwise is fighting words. We’ve seen that visceral reaction in comments on this blog (and realclimate, and others). We’ve seen it in congressional testimony. Amory Lovins has been facing those reactions since about 1973.

    It’s hard to give up the idea of a cornucopia. Really hard. We need to help folks understand that it’s really okay to leave it all in the ground.

    (And maybe this explains part of the disagreement between Joe Romm and the good people at BI. Joe says let’s bite the bullet now, BI says let’s make a high tech cornucopia to replace the fossil fuel cornucopia.) Anyway. (h/t to commenter Mike Hoexter who suggested that there is a “Cheap energy contract”, a social contract that gives every westerner unlimited cheap energy. Social contracts are hard to change. It’s worth a read.

  15. Ronald says:

    This is one solution, however weird and unconventional.

    The United States consumes about 4 000 billion Kwh a year.

    Half is coal. 2 000 billion Kwh a year.

    Coal costs about 0.05 $ per Kwh. 2 000 billion Kwh a year at 0.05 is 100 billion dollars a year.

    Have the federal government form a dept of non-carbon energy. Have the dept. build non-carbon electrical energy sources around the country.

    In the Midwest and West, spend 50 billion a year putting in Wind.
    In the Southwest, spend 50 billion a year putting in Concentrated Solar Power.
    In the Northeast and Southeast, spend 100 billion a year putting in Nuclear.

    Not PV. Still to expensive. When costs come down, sure. (Okay, some if you need to)

    200 billion dollars a year putting in non-carbon electrical energy. Require utilities to hook up to the electrical power as it becomes available, but not more than the utility can afford and don’t charge more than the utilities are already paying of electricity.

    In 10 years, the Federal Government will have spent some 2 trillion dollars to build non-carbon electricity. If it cost;

    Electricity at 6 cents Kwh, the total addition to the Federal Budget Deficit would be at the most 120 billion if all 2 000 billion Kwh was produced that way.
    At 7 cents Kwh, it would be 140 billion.
    At 8 cents Kwh, it would be 160 billion.
    At 10 cents Kwh, it would be 200 billion.

    Federal budget now is around 2 900 billion.

    But much of that would come back from income that the Federal dept. of non-carbon energy would be charging each of the utilities at 5 cents a Kwh.

    Then we would reduce the amount of coal that’s burned, not by putting in a price for carbon, but for supplying the electrical energy we need and slowly providing more and more of it, so less coal needs to be burned.

    Some say that we need a effort like World War II. That this is war. Well, in World War II, did each utility build it’s own tanks and planes and send them to other countries to fight the enemy? Nope. The war was fought by the Federal Government buying all the equipment and hiring all the people to do the job. In this scenario the Federal Government could contract out the jobs, but it would be allowed to go into budget deficits that individual utilities could not.

    The money would be borrowed just like in World War II. But the reason that it was felt that it could be borrowed was because future generations was going to benefit from a successful World War II, it was a clear reason to allow them to pay for it. (Unlike today where the budget deficits are for selfish consumption reasons.) So to with borrowing the money to put in non-carbon energy, future generations would certainly benefit from a world that they could actually live in, they might be grateful for that part of the debt.
    Some spending in other Federal programs might come down, Federal spending of welfare programs, such as they had in the 1940’s, went down 20 percent during World War II. They made that up with military uniforms, shelter and meals. Maybe every farmer and farm community with wind turbines would get less farm programs.

    Look at how we are paying for the current wars, with emergency budgets so they don’t even show up in some calculations of the budget deficit. We can accept going into debt for something where actually paying for it is not politically possible.

    If a president or politician was trying to put a price on carbon, people would say that we were going to cripple industry. But if we just took the funds out of the federal budget, we would be able to claim credit for all the non-carbon energy jobs created, but then also not increasing the cost of electrical energy for business or consumers.

    Much of the Federal government is paid by wealthy, by making them maybe pay more in income taxes to close the budget gap for this proposal, it might make it more palatable, but I’m not sure either.

    In my own humble view of what the constitution says about this type of program, one of the phrases used in the preamble is ‘to provide for the general welfare.’ My take on that is that we should do what’s right and beneficial to the country in a ‘general welfare’ way, not necessarily in a ‘specific welfare’ way. What that means is that we should make programs such as the FDIC, SEC, FDA, FCC, FAA etc. because they help everybody by contributing to making a good economic system and a Federal program is the only way to do it, but we should shy away from giving money out to individuals who can afford to do provide for themselves. This Federal non-carbon energy program would qualify by helping future generations from a heated world.

    There it is, for whatever it’s worth. Just trying to think outside the box.

    The NCE. (non-carbon electricity dept.)

  16. Ronald says:

    I realize the Federal deficit would still be increasing for the 2 trillion spent to build the non-carbon electricity. The 120 billion to 200 billion per year would be the long term contribution to the deficit. After the non-carbon energy sources are built, the program would shut down as much as needed.

  17. Ken Levenson says:

    Ronald, I like the clarity but isn’t Stalin dead? (I do like it though.)

    Joe, What about natural gas?
    It makes up a very big proportion of CO2 emissions, no? While stopping oil extraction may be impossible, shouldn’t we, like with coal, fight to keep the natural gas in the ground too? Carbon tax, yes. But how does it fit in the wedges?

    Perhaps no new natural gas plants and make all the newer existing ones cogeneration and shut down the older ones?

  18. John Mashey says:

    it’s going to be difficult enough to keep the coal in the ground, and coal use overlaps a lot more with gas (for electricity) than it does with oil.

  19. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    A very simple method to extended oil reserves as well as the reserves of all primary resources is to reduce the size of the world-wide military-industrial complex.

    For example. how much resources have been spent on nuclear weapons programs and everything related to these (e.g., missles, submarines, warships, missile defense systems, sat. detection systems, etc)? History teaches that an enormous amount of material resources and human resources have been spent on this, but these weapons have never been used and probably never will be. Thus why do developing countries suchas India, Iran, and Pakistan squander their wealth and resources on these useless systems much to the detriment of their citizen’s welfare? Clearly. these are decisions made by ambitious politicans.

    Attn: Joe! Are military liquid fossil fuel consumption records available to the public? Or are these classified? Does the miltary get any special deals on fuel prices? The high prices of jet and Diesel fuels are due to large consumption of these because of the the Middle East wars. The price of copper and zinc are at all time highs since these metals are used to make brass for ammo.

  20. John McCormick says:

    Harold, you can find some interesting reading in the following DoD report

    Reducing DoD Fossil-Fuel Dependence

    In light of an increasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, as well as rising fuel costs for the U.S. and the DoD, and implications with regard to national security and national defense, Defense ordered a thorough review of fuel avaliability and alternatives.

    John McCormick

  21. Earl Killian says:

    Remember that peak oil is often interpreted to mean we have consumed about half of what could eventually consume. If oil peaks around 2015, that means we will still be producing oil for a century (albeit at a declining rate), unless something else (e.g. a non-proliferation treaty) puts a stop to it. A similar comment applies to coal peaking in 140 years.

    The energy in natural gas reserves is estimated by the textbook Fundamentals of Renewable Energy Processes to be 15,700 EJ, roughly similar to the 18,900 EJ estimated for oil. However, we use much less of the world’s natural gas reserves than its oil reserves. Thus natural gas might eventually substitute for oil. Natural gas has traditionally been a fuel restricted to the continent where it is mined, since pipeline is the preferred delivery mechanism, but the increase in LNG tankers is changing that. So now that North American natural gas is peaking (we have only 4% of reserves), LNG tankers from Russia (27% of reserves) and Qatar (15% of reserves) will soon be feeding our addiction.

    I would not count on peak fossil fuels to save us from climate disaster. We may combust most of the conventional fossil fuels in decades to centuries, but remember that the atmosphere originally had no oxygen. The oxygen (now 209,400 ppm) came from CO2 through photosynthesis. Somewhere on Earth are the hydrocarbons produced from that photosynthesis. If conventional fossil fuels run out, and there isn’t a prohibition in place, humans will turn to unconventional fossil fuels. The textbook above cites testimony of the USGS before Congress in 1998 saying “the amount of methane contained in the world’s gas hydrate accumulations is enormous, but estimates of the amounts are speculative and range over three orders of magnitude from 100,00 to 270,000,000 trillion cubic feet [100,000 to 270,000,00 EJ] of gas.” Of course to mine the clathrates is suicide, but that won’t stop humans from doing it unless we have prohibitions with teeth.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    What happened to requiring CCS for coal reactors?

  23. Eli Rabett says:

    Do we have to remind folk that natural gas generates the least carbon dioxide per energy unit produced and coal the most. Or are we letting the worst be equal to the best. Having pointed that out, it is worth noting that capturing and burning the methane emitted from coal mines might be a useful thing to do.

  24. John McCormick says:

    Earl, tell us where the proposed LNG off-loading facilites are being permitted in the US. It is one thing to cling to alternatives as ‘remedies’; it is a far different challenge to make them realities.

    US natural gas production obviously falls short of demand. That is why we import from Canada and Mexico. Do you really believe LNG imports are a safe backstop? Or, are we talking ouselves into believing there are real alternatives to gasoline and coal. And I am a AGW alarmist.

    John McCormick

  25. Ken Levenson says:


    Natural gas currently makes up about 20% of emissions. Seems like a mighty big chunk to ignore – especially if we need to be looking at every reasonable way to reduce emissions.

    In a couple of years the efficiency differences will not be as strong an argument as the need to keep the carbon in the ground.

  26. Robert says:

    Harold, The US Air Force are already looking into using CTL because they know oil won’t last as long as coal and is becoming too expensive.

    They talk about using CCS, but when push comes to shove the military will just do it and stuff the emissions. I don’t see too many signs of Canada using CCS in the oil sands and the case there is just as pressing.

    CTL is the thin edge of the wedge. The technology means that there is no clear border between coal and oil/gas. It can be deployed with ease when political circumstances dictate (Nazi Germany, S Africa). The fear is that the world will seamlessly slide over to coal-based liquid fuels and accelerate further its already accelerating use of coal.

    This is from the 2007 BP Energy Review. Note: annual growth (in coal) of 4.5% is equivalent to a doubling in 15.5 years, a quadrupling in 31 years…and so on. How long to peak coal and how long to 1000ppm?

    Coal continued to be the world’s fastest-growing hydrocarbon in 2006. Global consumption rose by 4.5%,below last year’s rapid(+5.7%) growth but well above the 10-year average.

  27. paulm says:

    This interview with Lester Brown cheered me up a bit. It does seem like the world can go sustainable in a reasonably rapid time. However, the nagging question is have we gone too far already…

    its a close call now…and its going to be a wild ride!

  28. paulm says:

    no blog on this is complete with out a link to Al Bartlett’s lecture…

  29. Earl Killian says:

    John McCormick, Please see

    Because California is one of the most NG dependent states, the California Energy Commission tracks this sort of thing quite closely.

    Click on the maps, and noticed how few green dots there are, and how many white ones.

    I am not sure what you mean by safe. Safe as being an alternative to peak oil? No, because we would not convert our vehicle fleet to NG. Safe in a AGW sense? No, of course not. No fossil fuel is safe. NG is of course the least GHG-intensive fossil fuel, since it has the highest hydrogen to carbon ratio possible in a hydrocarbon (4:1, vs. 2.25:1 for octane, and about 0.7:1 for coal). Converting all US coal plants to NG would reduce those plants’ GHG emissions by 67% and cut total US GNG emissions from all sources by about 10%.

    There is a perfectly sane alternative to gasoline and coal: wind and solar electricity powering plug-in vehicles. It would only take 5,000 square miles of the US desert southwest covered with CSP to power the 3.9 trillion vehicle miles US drivers will try to drive in 2050 (420 million people times 9300 vehicle miles per capita per year). It could be done with wind too (40,000 square miles of wind farms, but only 2,000 square miles of that is occupied by the turbines and service roads–the rest can have other uses). Plug ins even have lower total lifetime cost of ownership than gassers. Unfortunately they have higher up-front purchase cost. This could be solved by leasing the battery pack instead of buying it. Plug-ins are the perfect uses of wind, since they are parked 95% of the time, and take only 5% of the day to recharge (on average), so that 5% can occur whenever the wind blows during the 95%.

    Being desirable and technically feasible doesn’t mean it will happen of course. I think it will, but I cannot be sure that stupidity won’t derail it (it has so far). The reason I think it will happen is plug-in hybrids will give enough buyers a taste of what is possible, and they will clamor for more, building momentum.

  30. Laird Towle says:


    1) Thanks for the good work you are doing.

    2) I suggest that a prime factor driving the demand for energy is world population growth, and that any attempt to mitigate peak oil or global warming/climate change must begin with a serious effort to stop world population growth, and roll it back to a sustainable 1-2 billion.

    With BAU world population is projected to increase from the current 6.6 billion to 9 billion by 2050. That is a 50% increase. Essentially all arable land is currently under cultivation, we do not have 50% in reserve. Likewise, nearly all fresh water is currently being used, we do not have 50% excess water (and with the glaciers melting we may have even less at crop time). Finally, a 50% increase in the petrochemicals needed to support a 50% expansion in agricultural production appears to be out of the question. So much for feeding these additional people, what about their other needs? Can we increase our output of wood products, metals, plastics, etc. by 50% also? These considerations make me wonder what the future holds – mass malnutrician, disease, and death seem likely – it appears that the food riots have already begun.

    3) You assume that peak oil will not occur for a decade. That seems entirely too optimistic to me. The many projections cited in the books by Paul Roberts and Richard Henberg, which utilize a variety of methodologies, usually predict peak oil will occur by 2010, if it has not already occurred. I don’t see oil company executives as credible authorities on this issue.

    4) It appears to me that there will be major economic consequences resulting for peak oil, notably higher prices for everything since virtually everything we make or do depends on oil. This needs to be factored into the cost of the various mitigating wedges proposed, and may slow down their implimentation significantly. For example, there may be enormous political pressure to do what is cheapest rather than what is environmentally sound.

  31. Earl Killian says:

    Robert, when I first heard about the Air Force CTL effort, I wrote my Senators asking them to withhold funding for this project. I suggest others do the same.

  32. David B. Benson says:

    Laird Towle — The is considerable, even massive potential for bio-energy, bio-plastics, etc. You can read about many of the developments here:

    although the site is no longer being updated. This one is:

    and Simon welcomes comments, questions, etc.

  33. Eli Rabett says:

    Ken, how high would the emissions be if natural gas were replaced by coal?

    We can do a simple back of the envelope (BOE) calculation based on the heating value of the two fuels (data at link). Natural gas has a heating value of ~ 54 MJ/kg (megajoules per kilogram), coal is much more variable, with heating values ranging from 27 to 15 MJ/kg, the 15 representing burning dirt aka brown coal (Germany) and the 27 anthracite. At the lowest natural gas has about twice the heating value of coal, at the highest more than three times.

    Coal is essentially carbon, so for every ~15-27 MJ we inject a kg of carbon into the atmosphere. Natural gas is pretty much methane, CH4. When we burn a kg of methane yielding 52 MJ, accounting for the masses of carbon and hydrogen atoms, we push 3/4 of a pound of carbon into the atmosphere. Putting that together coal produces ~2.7-4.8 times more carbon in the atmosphere than natural gas.

    This does not include the other problems that are much more seriously associated with coal than natural gas including dead miners, sick miners, mercury emissions, sulfur emissions, environmental damage and more.

    As John McCarthy says, he who does not do the arithmetic is doomed to failure. Do the math Ken. Replacing coal with natural gas, if it were possible would reduce emissions. Supply tells us that it is not possible unfortunately.

  34. Earl Killian says:

    Eli, a more complete calculation would take into account the relative efficiencies of NGCC and coal power plants. NGCC are 50-60% efficient relative to the LHV of NG (the GE H-System turbine claims 60%). Coal plants are 34-44% efficient relative to the LHV of coal (25-34% with CCS). NGCC emissions are around 300 gCO2/kWh. Coal emissions are around 900 gCO2/kWh.

    You might find this reference useful in the future:

  35. Eli Rabett says:

    Earl, not that I am complaining (note that the multiplier in gCO2 is 3 which is right in the range I calculated) but part of the point is that you can get a good estimate using a BOE calculation, which is one of their principle uses, to act as a check on more detailed work. A really scary number I have seen is natural gas turbine electrical generation + zone heating (for industrial/residential) yielding efficiencies > 80%. That would be great.

  36. Ken Levenson says:

    That’s a false choice. You wouldn’t replace natural gas with coal. You replace nature gas with solar thermal, nuclear and PV.

  37. David Lewis says:

    May I suggest a book, “Sustainable Fossil Fuels” by Mark Jaccard? He explains the difference between a “reserve” and a “resource” and the likely ability of coal, oil, natural gas, and other sources of energy to power civilization and for how long.

  38. david glover says:

    a couple of books that may be of interest;

    Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

    Profit from the Peak by Chris Nelder and Brian Hicks

    PFTP is essential reading to get a realistic appreciation of the dire situation we have dug ourselves into

    Climate Wars is just mindblowing; don,t read it after dark!!