The imminent reality of peak oil production should be clear to all by now (see “Normally staid IEA says oil will peak in 2020“).
Now some very serious people are suggesting that there is a lot less accessible coal out there than most folks believe. If we are nearing peak coal (and peak oil), then we would need to embrace the rapid transition to a clean energy economy almost as urgently as we need to embrace it to avoid destroying the climate.
Let’s start with the U.S. Geological Survey’s stunning 131-page analysis from December, “Assessment of Coal Geology, Resources, and Reserves in the Gillette Coalfield, Powder River Basin, Wyoming” [big PDF]:
The Gillette coalfield, within the Powder River Basin in east-central Wyoming, is the most prolific coalfield in the United States. In 2006, production from the coalfield totaled over 431 million short tons of coal, which represented over 37 percent of the Nation’s total yearly production.
The “total original coal resource in the Gillette coalfield” without applying any restrictions, “was calculated to be 201 billion short tons.” Then USGS subtracts out the inaccessible coal, and then mining and processing losses, which leaves 77 billion tons, and finally:
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 is 10.1 billion short tons of coal (6 percent of the original resource total) for the 6 coal beds evaluated.
Ouch! And this analysis was done at a time of soaring coal prices.
The National Research Council’s Committee on Coal Research, Technology, and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy wrote in a 2007 report: