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The great coal rush (and why it will fail)

This MuseLetter, and several more during the next few months, will be chapters for a forthcoming book on coal, to be published by Post Carbon Press. This month's issue is the book's Introduction.

The world appears poised for a headlong sprint toward greater dependence on coal. This book's purpose is to examine one crucial question that will shape this next great coal rush: How much is left?

The answer from conventional wisdom is, Lots. Coal appears to be the most abundant of the conventional fossil fuels, and everyone agrees that enormous quantities remain to be extracted. Most policy makers would prefer simply to leave it at that. Decades-old estimates assure us that there is 150 years' worth of supply at current rates of production; therefore we should be able to enjoy plenty of coal for several generations to come.

However, as we will see, this conventional wisdom is in need of substantial correction.

In Chapter One, we will see how coal supplies are estimated, and why new studies are challenging longstanding assumptions of abundance. As we will learn, estimating coal reserves is a complex task, and in many cases published figures are highly misleading. Then in following chapters we will look in some detail at coal reserves in China, the US, and the rest of the world, seeing how supply shortfalls are likely within decades - in some nations, within years. We will also examine the implications of this new information for our understanding of the crisis of global climate change, and will explore the likely impacts of supply constraints on the various industries that depend on coal - principally, electrical power generation and steel production.

Why Care About Coal?

1. The Economy

If coal were of declining importance in the world's energy mix, the problems of depletion and declining availability would not be serious. Instead, however, coal is at the center of energy planning for many nations - especially the burgeoning Asian economies. Despite environmental concerns, coal is experiencing the fastest percentage growth in usage worldwide of any of the principal fossil fuels, and the fastest growth, in terms of BTUs delivered, of any energy source.

This resurgence was mostly unanticipated.

Coal was the first fuel of the industrial age; it was the world's primary source of energy from the end of the 19th century (when it supplanted wood) until the middle of the 20th (when it was overtaken by oil). More recently, natural gas has substituted for coal to some extent in electricity generation, partly because of growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions (coal is the most carbon-intensive common fuel, natural gas the least); meanwhile oil has become the globe's most important fuel largely because of its role in transport.

The historic pattern was thus for industrial societies to move from low-quality fuels (wood contains an average of 12 megajoules per kilogram, and coal 14 to 32.5 Mj/kg) to higher-quality fuels (an average of 41.9 Mj/kg for oil and 53.6 for natural gas); from more-polluting to less-polluting fuels; and from solid fuels to a liquid fuel easily transported and therefore well suited to a system of global trade in energy resources.

During the 20th century, fuel switching yielded decisive economic and even geopolitical advantages. In 1912, Winston Churchill, as Lord of the Admiralty, famously retooled Britain's navy to burn oil rather than coal, thus helping to ensure victory over Germany in World War I. Throughout the second half of the century, the US economy became less energy intensive (measured as the amount of energy required to produce each dollar of GDP) largely by switching away from coal toward oil and gas. The reasons for doing so are explained in the following passage from Beyond Oil by Gever, Kaufmann, Skole, and Vorosmarty:

The advantages of internal combustion engines are such that a diesel locomotive uses only one-fifth the energy (in kilocalories) that a coal-powered steam engine needs to pull the same train. Moreover, oil-burning systems generally require less attention and burn cleaner than solid-fuel systems, as anyone will attest who grew up with a coal furnace in the basement. As a result, oil and gas generate from 1.3 to 2.45 times the amount of economic value per kilocalorie that coal does.1

As nations learned to take advantage of physical and functional differences in fuels, straining to get more economic bang for their energy buck, coal was nearly always in the position of being the older, less-efficient, less-desirable source. In short, the widespread assumption only a decade ago was that coal's moment in the energy spotlight had ended. While remaining an important fuel for electricity production, coal was, in many people's minds, an artifact of the 19th and early 20th centuries - the eras of steam-powered looms, majestic ocean liners, and smokespewing locomotives. Futurists in the 1980s and '90s assured us that, with the dawn of the information age, energy would soon become "de-carbonized" as nations shifted to cleaner energy sources and more concentrated fuels.

However, during the past three years, global production of crude oil has remained static, despite demand growth - especially from Asian economies. And there is every indication that worldwide petroleum production will begin an inexorable, inevitable decline beginning around 2010. This is the often-discussed phenomenon of Peak Oil (explained, for example, in the present author's The Oil Depletion Protocol).2 In the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, world oil use grew at an average rate of roughly two percent annually. During most of this period, prices were low - usually in the range of $US10 to $20. However, in the three years since May 2005, the rate of extraction of conventional crude oil has stalled, while prices have shifted to the $60 to $100 range. Many analysts believe that by 2015 oil production will be declining at an annual rate of over two percent per year and prices may be in the multiple hundreds of dollars per barrel. While more exploration prospects for conventional oil exist, they are mostly in geographically remote or politically sensitive areas; meanwhile, shortages of drilling rigs and trained personnel are adding significantly to delays in bringing new projects on line. Enormous quantities of non-conventional fossil fuels exist that are capable of being turned into synthetic liquid fuels (the bitumen deposits of Alberta, the heavy oil of the Orinoco basin in Venezuela, and the marlstone or "shale oil" of Wyoming and Colorado); however, the rate at which these substances can be extracted and processed is constrained by physical and economic factors - such as the need for enormous quantities of fresh water and natural gas for processing.

World production of natural gas will likely peak somewhat later than that of oil; however, regional natural gas supply constraints are already appearing, primarily in North America (the most intensive consumer of the resource), as well as Russia and Europe. Because only a small proportion is traded globally in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), this means it may not be possible to avert regional shortages by resorting to seaborne imports.

In the face of these constraints for oil, gas, and unconventional fossil fuels, coal by comparison appears suddenly attractive again. The industrial world has abundant experience with it, the technology for mining and using it is well developed, and there is purportedly an enormous amount of it waiting to be dug and burned. New technologies, such as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plants and methods to capture and store carbon, promise to make coal cleaner (though not cheaper) to use. In addition, there is increasing interest in deploying methods to turn coal into a synthetic liquid fuel able to substitute for oil (we will explore these technologies in more detail in chapter 8).

Since economic growth generally implies more energy consumption, it should come as no surprise that nearly all of the current world expansion in coal consumption is occurring in the nations with the highest rates of economic growth - principally, China and India, but also Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan. The shift in the world's economic center of gravity away from the US and toward the great population centers of East and South Asia is being widely heralded as the primary economic trend of the new millennium. In recent years, China's economy has grown at an annual rate of 7 to 11.5 percent (a seven percent constant growth rate implies a doubling of size every ten years: thus after 20 years the entire economy is four times its previous size, and after a mere 30 years it is eight times its former magnitude; at 11.5 percent annual growth, this eight-fold expansion comes in just 20 years). According to most expectations, China's GDP will exceed US$10 trillion by the end of the current decade, and will surpass US$20 trillion by 2020, making China's then the world's largest national economy. India's economic growth rate was 8.4 percent in 2006 and 9.2 percent in 2007. Currently, India is the world's fourth largest national economy, but at current rates of growth it could advance to third place within a decade (current rankings according to the CIA "World Factbook").3 India is now the world's third-largest consumer of coal, which provides nearly two-thirds of the nation's commercial energy (compared to the world average of 26 percent).

China currently obtains nearly 70 percent of its energy from coal and is the world's primary coal consumer, using nearly twice as much as the next country in line (the US). The quantities are staggering: in 2007 alone, China added electrical generating capacity - nearly all of it coal-based - equal to the whole of France's or Britain's entire electricity grid. During 2007, China's installed electricity generating capacity grew 17 percent, reaching over 700 gigawatts, second only to the US's 900+ gigawatts.

It is entirely foreseeable that this enormous, rapid growth in coal consumption should entail an equally enormous environmental cost.

Why Care About Coal?

2. The Environment

If there were sound economic reasons for industrial societies to switch from coal to oil and gas during the 20th century, there were equally compelling environmental reasons.

Coal is the dirtiest of the conventional fossil fuels. Sulfur, mercury, and radioactive elements are released into the air when coal is burned and are difficult to capture at source. During the early phase of the industrial revolution, both the mining and the burning of coal generated legendary amounts of pollution. In cities like London, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, smoke and airborne soot reduced visibility to mere inches on some days. The following passage from The Smoke of Great Cities by David Stradling and Peter Thorsheim captures the situation:

One visitor to Pittsburgh during a temperature inversion in 1868 described the city as "hell with the lid taken off," as he peered through a heavy, shifting blanket of smoke that hid everything but the bare flames of the coke furnaces that surrounded the town. During autumn and winter this smoke often mixed with fog to form an oily vapor, first called smog in the frequently afflicted London. In addition to darkening city skies, smoky chimneys deposited a fine layer of soot and sulfuric acid on every surface. "After a few days of dense fogs," one Londoner observed in 1894, "the leaves and blossoms of some plants fall off, the blossoms of others are crimped, [and] others turn black." In addition to harming flowers, trees, and food crops, air pollution disfigured and eroded stone and iron monuments, buildings, and bridges. Of greatest concern to many contemporaries, however, was the effect that smoke had on human health. Respiratory diseases, especially tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma, were serious public health problems in late-nineteenth-century Britain and the United States.4

The mining of coal was, in its early days, no less grim. Digging coal out of the ground is an inherently dangerous and environmentally ruinous activity, and accidents (from asphyxiation by accumulated gas, as well as from explosions, fires, and roof collapses) were so common as to be an expected part of life in mining towns. Miners and their families often suffered from respiratory ailments, including pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. And mining altered landscapes, often resulting in polluted water and air, and the destruction of forests. From the standpoint of safety, coal mining has cleaned up its act, at least in the more industrialized countries. The large-scale mechanization of mining means that today fewer miners are required to produce an equivalent amount of coal; meanwhile, improvements in mining methods (e.g. longwall mining), as well as hazardous gas monitoring (using electronic sensors), gas drainage, and ventilation have reduced the risks of rock falls, explosions, and unhealthy air quality. Even with these improvements, mining accidents still claimed 46 fatalities in the US in 2006; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mining remains America's second most dangerous occupation.

However, despite technical advances, coal mining continues to destroy landscapes, as is infamously the case with the method used in the Appalachian region of the US called "mountaintop removal." This practice, which involves clear-cutting native hardwood forests, using dynamite to blast away as much as 1000 feet of mountaintop and then dumping the waste into nearby valleys, often burying streams, has been called "one of the greatest environmental and human rights catastrophes in American history."5 Families and communities near mining sites must contend with continual blasting from mining operations and suffer from airborne dust and debris, floods have left hundreds dead and thousands homeless, and drinking water in many areas has been contaminated.

While the environmental and safety risks of both coal mining and coal burning have been somewhat moderated in countries that industrialized early, in the nations where coal use is today the highest and is growing fastest, methods of mining and consumption often resemble the worst practices of the early 20th century. Thousands of China's five million coal miners die from accidents each year (3786 recorded deaths in 2007). Meanwhile, acid rain falls on one-third of China's territory and one-third of the urban population breathes heavily polluted air.6 China's coal burning has put five of its cities in the top ten of the most polluted cities in the world, according to the International Energy Agency.

Recently, very fine coal dust originating in China and containing arsenic and other toxic elements has been detected drifting around the globe in increasing amounts. In early April 2006, a dense cloud of coal dust and desert sand from northern China obscured nearby Seoul before sailing across the Pacific. Monitoring stations of the US West Coast found highly elevated levels of sulfur compounds, carbon and other byproducts of coal combustion - microscopic particles that can work their way deep into the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer. But as terrible as all of these mostly longstanding environmental, health, and safety problems are, they pale in comparison to what many regard as the greatest crisis of our time - global Climate Change consequent upon carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels. While coal produces a little over a quarter of the world's energy, it is responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions consist principally of CO2, though coal mining also releases methane, which is 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2 and accounts for 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions created through human activity. During the past decade, as the scientific consensus has solidified that global warming is due to human activity, the actual signs of that warming have often surpassed even the most dire forecasts. During the 2007 summer, Arctic sea ice reached a minimum extent of 4.13 million square kilometers, compared to the previous record low of 5.32 million square kilometers in 2005. This represented a decline of 22 per cent in just two years; the difference amounted to an expanse of ice roughly the size of Texas and California combined. Moreover, the average thickness of the ice has declined by about half since 2001. Altogether, taking into account both geographic extent and thickness, summer Arctic sea ice has lost more than 80 per cent of its volume in four decades. At current rates of melting, the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer months by 2013. While sea levels will not be directly affected by the total melting of the northern icecap, since it floats on and thus displaces ocean water, that event will severely destabilize Greenland's ice pack - whose disappearance would cause sea levels to rise by several meters, inundating coastal cities home to hundreds of millions of people.

Meanwhile, as deserts expand and climate zones shift, many species that are unable to move or adapt quickly enough find themselves on the precipice of extinction.

The crisis is being exacerbated by the fact that carbon sinks (forests and oceans that soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) are losing their capacity. The net carbon uptake of northern forests is declining in response to autumnal warming. And evidence suggests that the oceans' ability to take up atmospheric carbon is also slowing, and perhaps even reversing.7

Meanwhile, the seas are acidifying as levels of carbonic acid - produced by the reaction of water with carbon dioxide - are increasing at a rate a hundred times faster than the world has seen for millions of years. The oceans are naturally alkaline; but, since the industrial revolution, sea surfaces have grown increasingly acidic, and many millennia will pass before natural processes can return the oceans to their preindustrial state. The sea life expected to be worst hit include organisms that produce calcium carbonate shells - including corals, crustaceans, mollusks, and certain plankton species. Larger sea fauna such as penguins and cetaceans would not be directly affected, but changes to the rest of the food chain would eventually impact these larger animals as well.

From the human standpoint, the potential consequences of climate change for agriculture are particularly worrisome. According to the UN's World Food Program (WFP), 57 countries - including 29 in Africa, 19 in Asia and nine in Latin America - have been hit by catastrophic floods during the past few years. Harvests have been affected by drought and heat waves in South Asia, Europe, China, Sudan, Mozambique and Uruguay.8 In 2007 the Australian government said drought had slashed predictions of the coming winter harvest by nearly 40 percent, or four million tons.9

Altogether, human-induced climate change constitutes an environmental impact of a scale never before seen during the period of human civilization. Because coal produces higher emissions per BTU of energy yielded than does oil or gas, as these other fossil fuels deplete and become more scarce and expensive, and as higher-quality coal depletes and nations turn to lower-quality coals, the climate crisis will only grow worse - unless cleaner sources of energy are developed quickly, or unless total energy use declines.

Efforts to capture carbon at power plants and sequester it in deep geological deposits could theoretically reduce the environmental burden from coal consumption, but there are snags and tradeoffs to that solution, as we will see in chapter 8.

There is currently an enormous push underway to develop a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, using cap-and-trade mechanisms to ration rights to emit carbon. This may turn out to be the most significant global policy discussion in world history, and it will have enormous implications for, among other things, the problem of global economic inequity - since national levels of per-capita energy consumption correlate closely with per-capita GDP.

Such a policy would also significantly impact the development of coal industries worldwide, and entire national economies that depend on coal. But if size of the coal resource base is smaller than is generally believed, this would also have enormous implications for climate science, climate policy, and economic planning at all levels of society.

* * *

In short: two of the defining trends of the emerging century -

  • The development of the Asian economies, and
  • Climate Change

- both center on coal. But coal is a finite, non-renewable resource. Thus any discussion of the future of coal must also intersect with a third great trend of the new century:

  • Resource depletion.

These three overarching trends, which will determine the future of our species, must inevitably coalesce - but how? Can current trends in coal consumption be sustained? If not, what does this mean for the global economy and for the environment? If such trends cannot be sustained, how will our energy future unfold? These are, of course, enormously complex questions - which we will attempt to unpack during the course of this book. But it is probably best to begin with a more rudimentary, apparently mundane question upon which these others directly or indirectly pivot:

How do we know how much coal we have?

1. John Gever, Robert Kaufmann, David Skole, and Charles Vorosmarty, Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1987, p. 87
2. Richard Heinberg, The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism, and Economic Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2006
5. Appalachian Voices website:
6. Robert J. Saiget, "China's Coal Addiction Causing Environmental Disaster," Nov. 6, 2006, Terra Daily website:
7. "Is the Ocean Carbon Sink Sinking?", Nov. 1, 2007, RealClimate website:
8. John Vidal, "Global Food Crisis Looms as Climate Change and Fuel Shortages Bite," The Guardian, Nov. 3, 2007
9. Ibid.

Peak Everything Economics, or, What Do You Call This Mess?

It's becoming increasingly clear that 2008 will be a catastrophic year for the US economy, and therefore probably for that of the world as a whole. The reasons boil down to two: continuing and snowballing fallout from the subprime mortgage fiasco (exacerbated by an orgy of debt-leveraging), and record-high, continuously advancing oil prices.

But will the impact be inflationary or deflationary? This matters, because the diagnosis determines how governments and financial institutions should respond, and what private citizens should do to protect themselves.

Part of the answer depends on how one defines the terms.

Some economists are in the habit of defining inflation simply as rising wages and prices. From this standpoint, high oil prices (caused by depletion and scarcity) are inflationary.

Others define inflation as an increase in the money supply. Some would take that a step further by defining inflation as growth in the money supply that outpaces growth in the productive economy.

In the current instance, Peak Oil is occurring at the same time as the bursting of the real estate bubble, in which a rapid decline in the value of property is effectively causing money and credit to evaporate from the economy. This is being called a liquidity crisis, but for financial institutions it actually amounts to a solvency crisis, and will likely result in the collapse of several major banks. From a monetarist point of view, that's deflationary.

The remedy? The Federal Reserve is lowering interest rates (to expand credit) and the government itself is considering an "economic stimulus" package, which will evidently consist at least partly of a direct tax rebate - checks in the mail to tens of millions of citizens. Some have likened this to dropping new money out of helicopters, and are calling Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke "Helicopter Ben." Helicoptering in new money is inflationary. It will cause a decline in the value of the dollar (in deflationary times - like the 1930s in the US - currencies typically hold or even gain in value because there is not much money to go around).

The US dollar is in fact losing value - a sure sign of inflation.

So here again is the dilemma: given these factors in play, how does one know what's in store for the economy? What does one call the emerging condition?

It may be enough just to call it a "depression." Even mainstream publications are now using the "D" word, at least conditionally. But most depressions are deflationary, and there is the nagging problem of high energy prices that are now beginning to filter down through the economy, skewing food prices up as well; and there's that declining currency value as well. Aren't those symptoms of inflation?

As oil becomes more costly, a greater and greater percentage of societal resources will be going to energy and food production, draining other sectors. This is in fact inherently deflationary (even though the price hikes may be interpreted as inflation), because the proportion of societal resources going to support consumption (infrastructure, wages, and credit) will inevitably have to decrease. Jobs in most sectors will vanish.

Yet as the crisis unfolds, there is every reason to think there could be periods of hyperinflation - though only in certain sectors of the economy. We are seeing evidence of every desire, on the part of the Fed and the government, to increase the money supply and thereby forestall the credit crunch ensuing from the subprime mortgage disaster. But where, exactly, should they inject that money? There really aren't many options. Through more government debt? That's a foregone conclusion. By propping up banks - that will nevertheless be in no position to pass on that money by making new loans? There may be other ways as well, but they will all show up as symptoms of inflation or hyperinflation. They will all also result in the destruction of the efficacy of the currency itself.

In other words, as this mess unfolds we may see extreme symptoms of inflation alongside those of deflation.

For an economy, this is the worst of all possible worlds. We have never seen anything quite like it. Maybe it's a "Perfect Storm" economy.

Fortunately, there is at least one upside to all these downers: the collapse of the current debt-and-growth based economy may finally force a redesign of the money system and the "science" of economics. But this will take a while, and it will help if there are good ideas out there being widely discussed and promoted, such as the notions of a steady-state economy or an energy-backed currency.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in finding shelter during the storm, get thee to the productive side of the economy. Grow something, or learn to make or repair something useful.

Editorial Notes: Related at Global Public Media: Coal prices triple as supply crisis deepens (Feb 4) Coal prices could double again (Jan 31) The last section of the MuseLetter was previously posted at Energy Bulletin: Peak everything economics, or, what do you call this mess? -BA

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