Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis
By Richard Heinberg
201 pp. New Society Publishers – May 2009. $18.95.

Richard Heinberg’s new book Blackout tries to demolish current assumptions about the world’s remaining coal endowment: namely, that it is immense beyond belief, barely tapped and will last for centuries to come. Heinberg argues that these assumptions are off-base, misleading and not at all supported by recent studies that suggest global coal production could peak in less than two decades. He warns that an impending shortage of minable coal threatens to plunge our civilization into one final, irreversible Blackout unless we act wisely.

Heinberg makes his case well. One of the things that I’ve always admired about his writing is the way he tries to avoid any potential for bias by considering all possible viewpoints and contributing factors with regard to a given issue, even those that might weaken his argument. Nowhere is this even-handed approach more evident than in Blackout, where he discusses not only the pessimistic reports on remaining coal reserves, but also those that he considers to be overly optimistic. In short, Heinberg can always be counted on to give us fact without inflammation.

And yet, my mind still isn’t quite made up about the book’s central thesis. Common sense tells me that it’s probably more right than wrong—not only because of Heinberg’s sound analysis of the reserves data, but also because imminent declines in oil production will surely place additional pressure on coal supplies, which could hasten coal’s peak. But quite a few people within the peak oil community simply aren’t buying this case for a peak in coal production within our lifetimes. According to these skeptics, peak coalers underestimate the ability of emerging technologies to extract a larger proportion of the resource than what is currently considered to be recoverable. On the advice of one such skeptic and personal friend, I spent several days researching innovative coal technologies like underground coal gasification (UCG) and microbial coal prior to writing this review. And, being anything but an energy scientist myself, I still find that I can’t reach a firm conclusion about the degree of promise held by these technologies. Thus, the remainder of this review will focus solely on Heinberg’s analysis of reserves data, rather than on the merits of the various emerging coal technologies.

The impetus for Blackout came two years ago, with the publication of a report titled “Coal: Resources and Future Production.” Authored by a group of independent analysts for Energy Watch Group in Germany, the report analyzed the latest available data on the world’s remaining coal deposits, and came to some sobering conclusions. Above all, it found that our current data on global coal reserves are of very poor quality, since many countries’ reserves figures are woefully out-of-date, having not been updated, in some cases, in several decades.

And of the nations that have actually made the effort to update their proven reserves figures, all but two—India and Australia—have revised them substantially downward over the past two decades. Some of these downward revisions have been staggering. For example, Botswana, Germany and the United Kingdom have all downgraded their proven reserves by more than 90 percent (Germany’s downgrades have been the sharpest, with proven hard coal reserves having plummeted by a stunning 99 percent!). Further, the report found that the United States, which we’ve all been told has something like
two centuries’ worth of coal left, has in fact already peaked in its production of high-quality coal. And even the world’s total in-situ coal resources have been reduced by 60 percent over the past 25 years, from 10 trillion tons of hard coal equivalent to 4.2 trillion tons.

The study authors conclude that such drastic reductions are far too significant to simply represent the quantities of coal that have been mined and produced in the time since reserves were last assessed. Instead, they are most likely the result of coal-producing countries having better data now than they once had. And the authors see global coal production peaking, in the best case, in 2025 at 30 percent above present levels of production.

Heinberg picked up this story on his MuseLetter blog when it first came to light, and it became the basis for a series of essays that he went on to write on peak coal. Over the past two years, the study’s findings have been bolstered by subsequent research carried out by the Institute for Energy (IFE), Caltech Professor David Rutledge and Uppsala University in Sweden, among others. Heinberg draws on all of this research in Blackout.

The book follows a simple structure. Its first two-thirds are devoted to assessing the reserves of the world’s major coal-producing nations, country by country. This is followed by two brief chapters that deal with the implications of continued coal burning for climate change and the potentialities and limitations of new coal technologies, respectively. Lastly, Heinberg devotes a chapter to three potential scenarios that he believes could be in store for us, depending on how successfully we’re able to rise to the challenges of developing a renewable energy infrastructure and averting catastrophic climate change.

I’ve already said all that I think I can about emerging coal technologies. As for the chapter on coal and climate, Heinberg dissects each of the various, differing viewpoints on the implications that continued coal consumption will have for climate change policy—and vice versa—and argues for a “combined approach” to addressing fossil fuel depletion and climate change. This combined approach would ensure that we don’t address each crisis with policies that make the other one worse (as for example by alleviating fuel shortages through the increased use of dirty hydrocarbons like tar sands and shale oil, which would accelerate climate change by ratcheting up carbon emissions). Heinberg also adds his voice to the clamor among leading climate scientists for a global campaign to keep atmospheric CO2 levels to within 350 parts per million (ppm), which is currently deemed the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2.

The three future scenarios that Heinberg foresees are a business-as-usual scenario involving the continued wholesale liquidation of the world’s remaining coal reserves; a clean tech scenario in which we continue using coal as quickly as possible, but mitigate its climate effects through massive investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS); and a scenario in which we successfully transition to a renewable energy infrastructure.

The business-as-usual scenario would have the worst environmental consequences out of the three. And the clean tech scenario would entail the worst economic consequences, since it would require tremendous investments in CCS infrastructures on the part of economies already ravaged by skyrocketing coal prices and shortages. The renewable energy scenario would involve the least environmental harm, and it’s also the only one in which we would be able to avert total economic and societal collapse. But Heinberg has no illusions that it will be easy to find the political will necessary in order for this latter scenario to become a reality.

Heinberg may be right that our modern world is doomed to descend into one great, irrevocable Blackout within our lifetimes barring some unprecedented, coordinated worldwide switch to renewables. On the other hand, it may be that innovative technologies will dramatically increase the total amount of economically extractable coal, bringing on a decades-long glut of the stuff—as well as great peril to our environment. But whichever winds up being the case, Heinberg is certainly right about the need to cut our carbon emissions as quickly as we can, just in case Earth’s climate turns out to be far more sensitive to our emissions than we’re currently able to fathom.

I don’t know which side is right in the peak coal debate—but I do know that Blackout is an important and timely book. In the form of this compact volume, one of the best and most productive peak oil authors working today has turned his customary scholarship, wisdom, wit and writing prowess to some of the most critical issues now unfolding on our planet.