Peak Coal?

Jim Brown
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A recent study predicts that existing coalmines will reach peak production on a global basis as soon as 2011 with production levels cut in half by 2050. What happened to the Saudi Arabia of coal as the U.S. has been called?

The study was done by Tadeusz W. Patzek and Gregory D. Croft and published in the August issue of Energy. The results of the study claim coal production will decline after 2011 and be at significantly lower levels by 2037.

National Geographic published an article last week where Patzek contends the current estimates of 200 years of coal supplies in the U.S. don't take into account the quality of the coal and the difficulty of producing it. Patzek claims much of the coal reserves in the U.S. cannot be produced economically and it is not environmentally feasible.

He used Illinois as an example. Proven coal reserves in Illinois are high but production has declined over the last 20 years in part because the coal has a high sulfur content. There are Federal regulations that address acid rain and make lower sulfur coal from Wyoming and Montana more attractive.

Patzek said it was not a valid assumption to simply calculate how much coal was in the ground if the rules and regulations, which are only going to get tougher as time passes, make that coal uneconomical.

National Geographic quoted the World Coal Institute as saying coal use will climb 60% over the next 20 years with reserves available for the next 119 years. The National Academy of Sciences predicts that at current consumption coal will last 100 years. Currently coal supplies 40% of the world's electricity but is responsible for 20% of the world's greenhouse emissions.

The consumption theory is modeled after the same bell curve that applies to peak oil. It was developed by MK Hubbert and predicted correctly that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. So far coal production in the U.K. has followed the same pattern and researchers believe it holds true for all countries. You can't produce what you have not found and once found there is a finite amount of production from those reserves. New coal deposits have been declining in frequency and quality for the last 30 years.

The summer of 2010 was the warmest on record and easily surpassed the prior two record years of 1998 and 2005. Global temperature data goes back to 1880. In Moscow July was the warmest month in 130 years with readings consistently over 100 degrees.

Artic sea ice covered an average of 2.3 million square miles during August. This is 22% below the 1979-2000 average and the second lowest August since records were begun.

I am not a global warming junkie but the recent evidence of retreating ice shelves and record high temperatures is going to increase the pressure on governments to take action towards industries that produce greenhouse emissions. With coal fired electrical plants producing 20% of the world's greenhouse gasses the regulations on the type of coal and the amount of emissions allowed are going to become a whole lot tougher in the years ahead. This will mean that a very large amount of high sulfur coal will never be mined. It may be calculated in the reserves but I believe Patzek has a valid point that it will not be available as a fuel source in the years ahead.

Jim Brown

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