The claim made by politicians from George Allen to Barack Obama that the United States is the “Saudi Arabia of coal” is based on a “wildly overconfident” estimate of the nation’s recoverable coal reserves. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Energy Information Administration estimate that the United States has a 240-year supply of coal uses a baseline established in 1974, now grossly out of date. Last year, he “U.S. Geological Survey completed an extensive analysis of Wyoming’s Gillette coal field,” which supplies one-third of the nation’s coal, “and determined that less than 6% of the coal in its biggest beds could be mined profitably, even at prices higher than today’s”:
“We really can’t say we’re the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore,” says Brenda Pierce, head of the USGS team that conducted the study. No one says the U.S. is facing a coal shortage. But the emerging ranks of “peak coal” theorists argue that current production levels may be unsustainable and, if anything, create a false sense of security.
The “Saudi Arabia of coal” slogan emerged during the oil shocks of the 1970s, when the coal industry and politicians promoted the use of the Nazi-era technology of turning coal into a gasoline substitute:
J. Allen Overton, Jr., president of the American Mining Congress: “You and I know that America is the Saudi Arabia of coal, and the more we extract it the less we’ll have to keep bowing to Mecca for oil. Perhaps in the long run nuclear fusion or solar power or some other esoteric form of energy will ride to our rescue. But, between then and now, we need a resource that will bridge the gap. And the name of it is coal.” [Oil & Gas Journal, March 26, 1979]
Vice President Walter Mondale: “We are the Saudi Arabia of coal. We’ve got lots of it, but we’re not using it like we should.” [Associated Press, June 26, 1979]
President Jimmy Carter: “America is the Saudi Arabia of coal, blessed with enormous reserves … I would rather burn one ton of Kentucky coal than see our nation become dependent by burning another barrel of OPEC oil.” [AP, July 31, 1979]
The industry-promoted metaphor has enjoyed popularity to this day, adopted by Republican and Democratic politicians alike to justify a continued dependence on this dirty and dangerous fuel, instead of true energy reform:
Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL): “When it comes to America’s tried-and-true means of producing energy, Democrats Just Say No. No to developing new oil and natural gas reserves. No to coal, although America is the Saudi Arabia of coal.” [House Republican Conference Radio Address, 7/18/08]
Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL): “Look, we are the Saudi Arabia of coal. And we can figure out the technology to make it environmentally sound. I believe in global warming. It is true that the planet is getting warmer and we have to deal with it. But this is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work. We can do that.” [CNN, 9/14/08]
Steve Forbes: “Take what can be done with technology with the shale. It’s just huge. And coal. Technology. If we learn to deal with the emissions when we’re doing a better and better job at it, we are the Saudi Arabia of coal. [Hannity & Colmes, 7/7/08]
Jack Gerard, American Chemistry Council: “Coal is our number one source of electricity, and some people just immediately dismiss it and say, let’s not use coal. But if we use this vast reserve of coal which we have – some have often said the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, it’s much more significant than that. The BTU capability of the coal in the United States is equal to the entire world oil reserve.” [NPR Talk of the Nation, 7/8/08]
Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), House Minority Leader: “We’re the ‘Saudi Arabia’ of coal. Whether it’s coal-to-liquid, coal-to-gas, we’ll let the market decide. But we can use coal in a clean way.” [House Republican press conference, 9/3/08]
Rep. John Dingell (D-MI): “The hard fact of the matter is we are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and we also have an unbelievable dependence upon it. It is the largest source of energy in terms of electrical power generation. And so we have a huge investment, and we happen to have — this is a long-term investment — and we have this as a reliable homegrown source of fuel.” [Washington Post Conference Transcript, 3/20/09]
Sen. John Tester (D-MT): ” I fully agree with the fact that we are going to be burning coal for a long, long time. Montana happens to be America’s version of the Saudi Arabia of coal. [Senate Hearing Transcript, 5/7/09]
George Allen, American Energy Freedom Center: “We’re the Saudi Arabia of the world when it comes to coal.” [E&E News, 6/4/09]
It’s troubling that politicians find the comparison to Saudi Arabia — a dictatorial monarchy that is a breeding ground for religious extremism — so appealing. However, there may be a more apt comparison — Saudi Arabia has done the least to tackle the problem of global warming, with the United States close behind.