Are we approaching Peak Coal? Part 2

Part 1 noted that the U.S. Geological Survey’s stunning December report found

The coal reserves estimate for the Gillette coalfield is 10.1 billion short tons of coal (6 percent of the original resource total).

Although the report didn’t get much media attention, it was a shocker because the Gillette field, within Wyoming’s Powder River Basin “is the most prolific coalfield in the United States” and in 2006 provided “over 37 percent of the Nation’s total yearly production.”

Now Clean Energy Action has issued a new report, Coal: Cheap and Abundant … Or is it? that goes beyond the analysis in the USGS study and concludes:

It appears that rather than having a “200 year supply of coal,” the United States has a much shorter planning horizon for moving beyond coalfired power plants. Depending on the resolution of geologic, economic, legal and transportation constraints facing future coal mine expansion, the planning horizon for moving beyond coal could be as short as 20–30 years.

A top priority of Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the Obama Administration must be a detailed mine-by-mine analysis to resolve the issue of the U.S. coal resource. The imminent reality of peak oil production should be clear to all by now (see “Normally staid IEA says oil will peak in 2020”). If we are running short of coal, the urgency of jumpstarting the transition to a clean energy economy is all the greater — and the possibility that coal with carbon capture and storage will be a major contributor to greenhouse gas reductions would be greatly diminished.

Clean Energy Action notes:

The United States uses about 1.1 billion tons of coal a year with over 450 million tons of that coal coming from Wyoming. In 2007, the combined production of the next top six producing coal states (West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Montana, Texas and Colorado) was approximately equal to the coal produced in Wyoming, the top state.

In West Virginia, we are already destroying 20 tons of mountain to get one ton of coal — up from 10 tons only a short time ago. The CEA report warns Wyoming mines are facing a similar loss of productivity:

The major mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming (e.g. the “Fort Knox” of U.S. coal) have less than a 20 year life span, and coal mines in other parts of the United States are also likely to be playing out in the next 20 years. Future coal mine expansions are highly uncertain as these expansions will face very serious geologic, economic, legal and transportation constraints. Importantly, the federal government owns essentially all of the coal in the western United States, and future coal mine expansions in western states will have to comply with a host of federal laws.

As noted in Part 1, the Energy Watch Group, an independent group of scientist who investigate energy issues initiated by a German member of parliament, published a 2007 study that found

The USA, being the second largest producer, have already passed peak production of high quality coal in 1990 in the Appalachian and the Illinois basin. Production of subbituminous coal in Wyoming more than compensated for this decline in terms of volume and — according to its stated reserves — this trend can continue for another 10 to 15 years. However, due to the lower energy content of subbituminous coal, US coal production in terms of energy has already peaked 5 years ago — it is unclear whether this trend can be reversed. Also specific productivity per miner is declining since about 2000.

If the nations of the world get serious about avoiding catastrophic global warming, then we will either need to start reducing global coal use pretty sharply starting around 2020 (if your target is 450 ppm, see Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5–7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path) or immediately (if your target is 350 ppm, see Hansen et al: We must phase-out coal emissions by 2030). Such sharp reductions, which must begin before coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is likely to be practical and affordable on a large scale (see here), would inevitably lead to sharp declines in the price of coal.

But if we are going to see peak coal any time in the next few decades, then, as noted, the entire coal with carbon capture and storage (aka “clean coal”) effort will be fruitless.

Part 3 will look at the recent work of Caltech’s David Rutledge on peak coal and its implication for greenhouse gas stabilization efforts.

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