Translated from French by Laura Bennett

Richard Heinberg is an important figure in the world of those interested in the energy crisis and its consequences, and one of the rare few, along with James Kunstler, to have had their work at least partially translated into French. A member of the Post Carbon Institute, he is the author of Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (available in French with the title Pétrole: la fête est finie), Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse and Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. For a long time in his work he has studied and described Peak Oil and what it means for the future of our societies. His latest book, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, is dedicated to coal, and has aroused considerable interest, and this all the more so because it highlights a problem which had previously only been mentioned in relatively confidential reports: the imminent depletion of coal reserves.

Richard Heinberg begins by noting that coal production in any given region follows the same curve as oil production. It too starts with an increase, reaches a maximum and then declines over time as the deposits run out. This evolution is markedly less visible, however, because numerous forms of coal exist, of extremely variable energy values. The best, that which is mined and therefore exhausted first, is anthracite. Next is bituminous coal of variable quality, then lignite and finally peat, which almost no one exploits to provide energy any longer. The poorer the quality of the coal, the less energy it produces per kilogram, to the point that there is no interest in transporting lignite over long distances because the energy needed to do this quickly exceeds that which would be produced by the lignite. And yet the official figures do not take these distinctions into account, or present them in an overly simplified fashion, something which creates a false impression of abundance.

In addition, estimates of reserves are very often revealed to be of poor quality. They have very often been created decades ago and, more often than not, are later greatly revised downwards. Notably this is what happened in Germany and in Poland where formerly important reserves were reduced to almost nothing once it was decided to take a slightly closer look.

To carry out his study, Heinberg bases himself on four recent works:

  • Coal: Resources and Future Production by the Energy Watch Group, an environmentalist think tank based in Germany and supported by the Ludwig-Bölkow foundation.
  • A Supply-Driven Forecast for the Future Global Coal Production by the Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group.
  • The Future of Coal prepared for the European Commission Joint Research Centre
  • Hubbert Linearization and Curve-fitting by David Rutledge, Jean Laherrère et al.


The United States is the second largest global producer with more than a billion tons a year. They also have the most important reserves with 240 billion tons, in theory the equivalent of 250 years of production. These figures are misleading, however, because the quality of this coal is very uneven, and if American production continues to increase in volume it will decrease in energy value.

52% of the high quality coal is produced in Pennsylvania, in Kentucky or in West Virginia, yet production there is either stable or in decline. The anthracite in Pennsylvania is almost exhausted and the production in West Virginia will soon begin to decrease.

America’s reserves are mostly situated in Wyoming, in Montana and in Illinois, but they are comprised of coal either rich in sulfur (in Illinois) or of bad, or rather of very bad quality, and mining them would pose serious environmental problems. Added to that are the transport difficulties of a country whose rail network is in a poor state.

In fact, the capacity of the United States to nourish their economy with coal depends principally on their capacity to mine the reserves in Wyoming, which, let us remember, are of poor quality. The peak in production will be reached between 2025 and 2040 – 2060 in the most optimistic of scenarios.


China is the world’s primary producer of coal with around 40% of global production. This provides 70% of its energy and 80% of its electricity. Its reserves were estimated at 200 billion tons in 1930 but have been revised several times and cut as far as 114.5 billion tons in 1992. This figure remained officially stable despite an annual production of more than one billion tons before being revised, still officially, upwards to 186.6 billion tons in 2002. This revision has not, however, been validated by other players in the market.

The coal industry in China suffers from weak productivity. A large number of the nation’s some 25,000 mines are private and owned by small businesses, or are even mined in a clandestine fashion. This translates into disastrous working conditions but also into supply difficulties which regularly lead to power cuts. Equally regular shortages of fuel lead to irregularities in production. Large quantities of coal are, in addition, lost due to fires in the mines which release as much CO² as the total released by automobiles in the United States.

The majority of coal resources in China can be found in the north and in the north-east of the country and their extraction is extremely rapid in relation to the official reserves, which suggest a relatively premature peak in production, followed by a rapid decline. Estimates vary according to their authors from between 2015 and 2032, and this within a context when China is constrained by its economic expansion to import ever increasing quantities of coal.


Russia produces around 350 million tons a year which is insufficient to satisfy its needs and forces it to import increasing quantities of coal. Coal provides around 30% of the country’s needs in electricity and is principally produced in the former basins of the Donets and Ural rivers. The majority of the reserves, estimated at around 157 billion tons, can be found in Siberia. This is, however, mostly poor quality coal, of which a large part is lignite and is difficult to mine due to a lack of infrastructure.

The poor quality data relating to Russian reserves, and the difficulty in mining the majority of them, makes it hard to predict the future production of the country. It seems that the country is relying on the mining of the Siberian deposits, of mediocre quality and situated far from urban centres. Effective mining would assume a marked improvement in the rail network, which is currently in a poor state, or the construction of power stations in situ, something which implies heavy investment. The poor quality of the Siberian coal also means that it will release much CO², and that the cost of possible sequestration operations could make its exploitation unprofitable.


India’s needs for coal are constantly increasing and reached 460 million tons a year in 2005 and 68% of the country’s CO² emissions come from coal. India has been confronted, in addition, by shortages of coal principally linked to its problems of infrastructure. In certain regions, these shortages have lead to sometimes drastic reductions in the provision of electricity.

India’s reserves are situated mostly in the east of the country. They have been revised upwards recently, from 12.6 billion tons to 90 billion tons in 2005. They were then brought back to 56 billion tons in 2007. India’s reserves are of mediocre quality and contain a large quantity of ash which makes them impossible to export and generates considerable pollution.

Even if, theoretically, India has 200 years of reserves ahead of it, the uncertain nature of the official figures, the lack of infrastructure, and the weak productivity of the mines, makes their exploitation delicate at best. Moreover, the majority of India’s reserves are found at great depth and are therefore difficult to access.

Even if India remains strongly dependent on coal in the immediate future, its capacity to provide for itself is uncertain, and the predictable increase in coal prices leads one to foresee social problems even more serious than those facing the country’s other great energy resource – water power – which is threatened by climate change.


Australia exported 233 million tons of coal in 2006 of a total production of 309 million tons, mostly directed towards Asia. Around 80% of the electricity produced in Australia and 40% of its energy comes from coal, and the country has the highest rate of CO² emissions per inhabitant in the world.

The majority of Australia’s reserves are found on the east coast of the country. They are evaluated at 86.5 billion tons and should satisfy the countries needs for the foreseeable future. It is not certain if they will be able to satisfy the growing needs of the Asian economies who already import significantly.


South Africa exports 80% of its production to Europe. It produced 244 million tons a year in 2006 with reserves estimated at 48.75 billion tons. A large number of the active mines are, however, in decline and the remaining reserves, although theoretically abundant, are of lesser quality. They are, moreover, situated far from exportation terminals. Their exploitation will therefore be costly, as much in energy as in money and in time. Add to that the AIDS epidemic which is making the recruitment of miners more difficult and diminishes their productivity.

The lowering of the quality of extracted coal generates ever larger quantities of waste, and the necessity to mine fields ever smaller in size damages productivity, which leads one to suppose that South African production will, at best, be uncertain in the relatively near future.


Europe has for a long time been the world’s leading producer of coal and has, for the most part, based its success on this source of energy. Its reserves are however largely exhausted and its production is marginal, except as far as Germany’s lignite is concerned, which is of very poor quality and can only be exploited on site.

Even in this area reserves have regularly been revised downwards, in Germany changing from 55 billion tons in 1990 to 6.6 billion tons in 2002. What remains of European production can only diminish in the course of the coming decades.


Several new technologies are currently being examined and could allow for the mining of marginal deposits, for the better use of coal or for the limiting of CO² emissions. Putting them into practice is, however, strictly limited by technical or economic difficulties.

The Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) consists of turning coal into gas to obtain a mixture of carbon and hydrogen oxide which is then burned in a power station to produce energy. The effectiveness of the energy is much superior to that of a classic power station and the production of CO² is markedly lower. Its sequestration is also equally made easier. The first IGCC power station should be in place between 2012 and 2020 in the United States.

Their cost is however much higher than that of a classic power station – $3,600 per kilowatt of capacity against $1,290 for a classic power station if the Mesaba power station in Minnesota is taken as the basis. Within the context of a chronic crisis engendered by the stagnation or decline in oil production this is a major obstacle.

Coal to Liquid (CTL): this is concerned with the synthetic gasoline produced by Nazi Germany during the war and by the Apartheid regime. That it has only ever been used by regimes that were not able to supply themselves normally with oil implies that its economic and energy efficiency is limited. It would only be profitable at an oil price of between $67 and $82. Moreover, the factories are costly: a minimum of $25,000 per barrel of capacity according to a study in 2005, $120,000 per barrel of capacity when taking projects currently underway as a reference point. These costs, in an economy dependent on fossil fuels, are in part contingent on those of oil, something which leads to a vicious circle.

This process is especially interesting for aeroplanes, or if electric vehicles should turn out to be an illusion. Its cost remains significantly high in the context of a long-lasting crisis, however. In addition it also emits large quantities of CO².

Underground Coal Gasification (UGC): this process consists of turning coal, which would otherwise be difficult to mine, into gas while underground, and the burning of said gas to produce electricity. The process is not new and is used in a limited fashion in Uzbekistan. It only works, however, for deposits with a very particular depth and thickness, and in areas without underground water. In practice its impact on production runs the risk of being weak.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): this is concerned with the capture of the CO² produced by coal combustion, and its storage in a definitive manner in a geologically stable reservoir. This assumes the construction of a vast network of pipelines to transport the CO² captured in this way to the storage sites and, in particular, that said storage sites will have been identified. Various possibilities are envisaged – storage underground, under the sea or in mineral form – all of which pose great difficulties. In addition possible leakage could be potentially dangerous for the population.

What’s more, the volume of CO² produced every year is 28.2 billion tons, of which 11.4 tons comes from coal. Even when liquefied and under pressure, this CO² would occupy 10.9 cubic kilometers. By way of a comparison, mining operations, taking all minerals together, displace around 12 cubic kilometers a year, something which gives an idea of the size of the problem posed by the sequestration of CO². This problem is not insurmountable in theory, but it would result in a very consequential increase in the cost of energy, coming within the context of a crisis.


Heinberg concludes that coal is sufficiently abundant to have a substantial impact on the climate but not to the extent that it will be able to replace other fossil fuels in the long term once they have started to decline. In this context he envisages three scenarios, while being aware that reality will be more complex and differently nuanced.

Business As Usual

In this scenario we exploit our resources to the maximum, without taking anything other than symbolic measures to compensate for their decline, or to contend with the greenhouse effect. In trying to maximize growth we burn ever larger quantities of coal in the hope of releasing sufficient resources to finance a future transition.

After 30 years renewable energy represents 5% of the world’s energy, the nuclear share will have quadrupled after between 3 and 9 trillion dollars of investment. It will then provide 12% of the world’s energy. As time passes, as oil becomes rarer and more expensive, derivatives of coal will replace it. Electric vehicles will become more numerous, increasing the demand for electricity and thus for coal.

The coal market will become better integrated and coal itself will become more expensive, due to the increases in transport costs and growing demand. These same transport costs will bring about a relocalization of industry to the benefit of the developed nations.

Coal shortages will provoke serious economic problems in China and in India, although industry in the West will experience relative prosperity….for a limited time.

After 2020 the stagnation, followed by the decline in coal production, combined with the accelerated decline in gas and oil production, will touch the economies of the West, accelerating the transition towards technologies of gasification and the liquefaction of coal. All cars will then be electric and aeroplanes will run on synthetic gasoline. Traffic will be greatly reduced, however, due to the chronic shortages. Power cuts will become more and more frequent, even in the developed nations, due to the shortages and the lack of means to maintain the infrastructures.

The standard of living will decrease in a dramatic fashion as public facilities deteriorate due to lack of maintenance.

Between 2030 and 2040 the trade in coal will cease almost completely and oil production will have become marginal and will essentially be used up in situ. Investment in renewable energy will have become almost impossible through lack of means. Poor and unmaintained infrastructures will have crumbled as the lack of fuel blocks communications. Power cuts will become the norm and industrial activity will progressively disappear. Only those nations with fossil resources at their disposal or with solid subsistence agriculture will be able to survive. Everywhere else social order will disappear and governments will cease to operate.

The Clean Solution

This scenario is identical to the previous one except that governments agree to effectively combat the greenhouse effect by investing massively in the sequestration of CO² and IGCC power stations.

The cost of this investment prohibits the development of nuclear power, of which the importance merely doubles, and renewable energy. The price of electricity increases much more quickly in the first scenario but the general evolution is the same, the depletion of fossil resources follows the same rhythm.

The cost of the fight against the greenhouse effect associated with Peak Oil brings about a lengthy economic stagnation. China, which still suffers from chronic energy shortages, is particularly affected, along with India.

IGCC power stations and sequestration technologies begin to work by around 2020 and coal production, which was in decline, begins to increase. The cost of sequestration is such that the net energy available to society continues to diminish. Transport becomes problematic as oil gets rarer and rarer and the capacity for producing synthetic gasoline remains limited.

Society’s energy problems worsen as coal does not manage to take the baton from oil before it reaches its peak. Once the infrastructure for clean coal is finally operational, production goes into decline. Shortages become widespread and the quantity of net energy available to society does not stop falling. It is by now too late for massive investment in renewable energy. Power cuts become the norm, and industrial activity progressively disappears. Only those nations with fossil resources at their disposal, or with solid subsistence agriculture, can survive. Everywhere else social order disappears and governments cease to operate.


In this scenario the whole planet mobilizes to confront the depletion of resources. The various governments plan a gradual abandonment of fossil fuels and of economic growth. This supposes not only an enforced reduction in our energy consumption, but also a return to a social organisation better adapted to our new resources.

Our investment capacities are directed towards more elementary production activities which, in certain countries, could signify a return to subsistence agriculture and the reversal of urbanization.

The system of electricity production and distribution is decentralized and more and more widely fed by local and renewable resources. Electricity is rationed during the transition phase, as is steel, which must be used principally to build railways rather than buildings or automobiles. Gasoline is reserved for public transport, and flights are strictly limited.

Nuclear energy is abandoned over a period of 30 years as the uranium reserves are quickly exhausted. Young people are encouraged to turn to organic agriculture as industrial agriculture is discouraged.

This policy at first translates into a serious global economic crisis and a very high unemployment rate which will have to be balanced by strong local solidarity. As governments invest 10% of their GDP into renewable energy there are few resources left over and the financial sector will shrink considerably. Numerous industries will disappear. As a whole the economy will undergo a reorientation similar to that experienced by the American economy after the Second World War.

After 2020, however, the investments begin to pay off and a more local, largely rural society will begin to see the light of day. The global population will stabilize and then decline, but without collapsing. The transport network will be structured around shipping lines and railways, and international trade will principally be concerned with raw materials. Agriculture will have been reorganized on a local basis and the global economy will reach a new phase of stability, strictly within the framework of natural limits.

Translated by Laura Bennett for the Post Carbon Institute 26/9/09