Leslie Glustrom on Peak Coal
November 29, 2011
Gasoline is not the only 19th century energy source that’s peaking right now…
Coal provides nearly one-quarter of the total energy consumed in the U.S., and by Mr. Warholic’s estimate, the country has enough in the ground to last about 240 years. A belief in this nearly boundless supply has led officials to dub the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia of Coal.”
But the estimate, recent findings show, may be wildly overconfident.
While there is almost certainly as much coal in the ground as Mr. Warholic’s Energy Information Administration believes, relatively little of it can be profitably extracted. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey completed an extensive analysis of Wyoming’s Gillette coal field, the nation’s largest and most productive, and determined that less than 6% of the coal in its biggest beds could be mined profitably, even at prices higher than today’s.
“We really can’t say we’re the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore,” says Brenda Pierce, head of the USGS team that conducted the study.
Longer presentation by Glustrom below.
In Wyoming, the Gillette coal field, in the Powder River Basin, is the most prolific coal field in the U.S. This region has been nicknamed the “Fort Knox of coal.” In 2006, output from the Gillette region totaled over 431 million short tons of coal, or over 37% of U.S. total yearly production. Wyoming coal has relatively lower energy content than Eastern coal, but it also has extremely low sulfur content. Thus, many of the 600 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. buy Wyoming coal to blend with other coal with higher sulfur content to meet Clean Air standards.
Previous coal studies of the Powder River Basin indicated that its coal measures would last many decades, if not a century or more. One early estimate of total coal resource in the Gillette field was just over 200 billion short tons. More recently, the development of coalbed methane (CBM) gas exploitation in the Gillette coal measures has added an entirely new set of hard data points to previous estimates. The interpretation of these new data provides a shocking downward revision of the coal resources and reserves in the Gillette coal fields.
According to a recent USGS study (Assessment of Coal Geology, Resources and Reserves in the Gillette Coalfield, Powder River Basin, Wyoming, USGS open-file report 2008–1202), the coal reserve estimate for the Gillette coal field is 10.1 billion short tons, which is a mere 5% of the original 200 billion ton resource total. In other words, the USGS has just revised the Gillette resource base down by 95%.
This dramatic downward revision is just the beginning of many more disappointing announcements. Other researchers are performing analyses in all U.S. coal mining regions, using more of the updated data that are coming in from the field. This is long overdue. It’s one thing to feel good about your own press releases. But for setting energy policy, the U.S. needs to have a detailed, mine-by-mine analysis of resources and reserves based on current data using all of the available geological and mathematical tools for modeling. In the end, we should not be surprised to learn that only a small fraction of previously estimated coal reserves will ever be economically recoverable.
The U.S. almost certainly does not have a 250-year supply of coal. The nation will be fortunate if its coal supplies can stretch for another century. And even if the U.S. continues to use coal at current levels of output — which is unlikely in the face of the looming political controls on carbon — the supply issue will almost surely come to a head in as few as 10–20 years. In the world of long-range energy planning for the U.S. economy, the issue is ripe to address now.