For years, perhaps even decades, the American people have clung to the idea that, even if the oil-producing countries decided to shut off the spigot to punish us, we would still have coal reserves to rely on for energy.
This understanding, which has led to complacency among the citizenry and almost complete indifference in the government regarding alternative sources of energy, is now being undermined by a series of reports from universities, think tanks and even the fringe of the coal industry itself.
Professor David Rutledge of CalTech, working with fossil fuel estimates from the International Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, notes that coal reserves are grossly overstated and could be substantially exhausted this century, in stark contrast to earlier forecasts.
Rutledge is basing his estimate on IPCC reports, which show oil production peaking in 1975. This high point, known as Hubbert's Peak, is a grim forecast for oil, but does it justify a similar scenario for coal? Milton Catelin, Chief Executive of theWorld Coal Institute, argued as recently as 2006 that there was enough coal in the world to last for another 155 years.
This estimate is now called into question by two recent studies. The first, Coal: Resources and Future Production, by the German-based Energy Watch Group, found that global coal production would likely peak in as little as a decade and a half. The second, The Future of Coal, by B. Kavalov and S. D. Peteves of the Institute for Energy (IFE), reportedly agrees in substance with the first. This second report has not yet been published.
A National Academy of Sciences report from June 2007 isn't overly optimistic either, noting that present reserve estimates (for coal) are based on data compiled in the early 1970's, using methods which have never been reviewed, revised or updated.
Canadian geologist David Hughes concurs. "Five years ago, I became concerned about the total energy picture, and, at that time, I put together my own analysis based on all the available data of global oil, global gas, North American gas, coal, global coal, North American coal. And peak coal looks like it's occurred in the Lower 48. The U.S. is now an importer of coal."
The situation may be even worse in China and Asia, where official reserve figures have not been changed for years, in spite of the billions of tons mined to produce steel, run industry and fuel power plants.
A typical example of this failure to update is emphasized by conflicting European reports. In 2000, the European Commission's Institute for Energy estimated global supplies of coal would last 277 years. Seven years later, that estimate was revised downward by 122 years. That's a profoundly disturbing re-evaluation in a tally used to determine what a post-industrial world will run on.
Even the United States, which has more than a quarter of all known coal reserves, is looking at a peak coal scenario which suggests much of this reserve is not economically viable at today's costs. Add to that the fact that newer "clean coal" technologies probably won't reach maturity until coal production peaks - and even when perfected require more coal - and you have a glimpse of an impending energy crisis which seems to mirror, in reverse, the curve of climate change.
Is Nature trying to tell us something, and, if so, does she have a sense of humor or a tendency to schadenfreude? And isn't it about time we invested in truly alternative energies like wind and solar before we find ourselves literally powerless with factories to run and homes to heat?
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