Leslie Glustrom on Peak Coal

November 29, 2011

Gasoline is not the only 19th century energy source that’s peaking right now…

Wall Street Journal:

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.

Energy Bulletin:

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.

12 Responses to “Leslie Glustrom on Peak Coal”

  1. I tried to get a handle on this a while back, honestly do not know what to think. Hard data is a little hard to come by. Her utilities problem with future supplies is mirrored locally, all of a sudden renewal of contracts is not at all guaranteed.

  2. Martin_Lack Says:

    Leslie prefaces all of her comments by leaving aside a whole range of factors that cannot (or should not) be ignored: It doesn’t matter how many decades-worth of coal reserves the US or anyone else has. It is a moral imperative that we must stop digging them up. Furthermore, unless we want to repeat the mistake of the now-extinct inhabitants of Easter Island, we also need to stop chasing evermore esoteric sources of gas and oil. Therefore, we will eventually have to keep ourselves warm and/or cool and cook all our food using electricity only.

    Therefore, although anti-nuclear ideologues continue to deny it, unless we want to accept the wholesale industrialisation of the countryside, renewable energy can never meet this long-term demand for electricity. I agree that the fossil fuel lobby has resisted change for far too long and that, in the short-term, we need to invest in a whole range of renewable energy sources. But, and it is a big “but“, looking further ahead — and assuming we find some way to prevent the deaths of 100s of millions of people as a result of climate change — we simply will not have the luxury of a choice: We cannot choose renewables or nuclear – we will need both.

    This is not my conclusion based on some supposed prejudice as a geologist. This is the conclusion reached by a wide range of environmentalists and energy specialists, including Tom Blees, Stewart Brand, David MacKay, George Monbiot, James Lovelock, and Mark Lynas. Therefore, it is pointless Blue Rock and his kind attacking me; they should attack them instead (i.e. don’t shoot the messenger just because you dislike the message – that is what denialists do).

    • otter17 Says:

      The book “The End of Oil” by Paul Roberts lays out a pretty convincing case that renewables on their own may not be able to cover the electrical sector in a timely enough manner, despite the fantastic growth rates for wind and solar. Nevertheless, enhanced efficiency measures coupled with renewables could do the trick (plus more development for enhanced geothermal I would say).

      As far as nuclear, my view is that there are some very compelling reasons to stay away from it, but I see a future where we could maintain its current share of the electricity market and keep it on the radar screen for further deployment and R&D for the next gen reactors as necessity dictates. Nevertheless as I understand it, peak uranium wouldn’t be too far away if a large worldwide resurgence in current generation nuclear were to get going.

      • Peak uranium stands at about 35 years, as I understand it. This does not affect plutonium nuclear power.

        • Martin_Lack Says:

          Precisely the point: Fast Neutron Reactors can use spent fuel and all the 99% of uranium that thermal reactors cannot use. They would also get rid of all the long-lived highly-radiocative waste. Nuclear Fusion would generate no radioactivity and no waste.

      • Martin_Lack Says:

        Otter17, your “compelling reasons“are, in my view, problems we already have (proliferation, terrorism, and long-lived highly-radioactive waste), which Fast Neutron/Breeder Rectors (FNR/FBR) would solve. Other supposed problems are over-stated by ideological opponents for spurious reasons. Having spent billions of pounds and/or dollars on it, the UK and US gave up on FNR/FBR 20-25 years ago for equally spurious reasons. Had they not done so, we would have almost certainly have had a workable and widely-applicable reactor design available to all today and would therefore not have an energy crisis at all.

        • Perhaps with better policy, more cost effective, sustainable nuclear power could have been (and might still be) developed. Let’s evaluate a hypothetical alternative – facilities that could store and generate base load electricity less expensively, with less operating risk, and far less dismantlement costs than nuclear. Would that be a preferable option?

          • Martin_Lack Says:

            Yes Charles. Despite what Blue Rock says I am not a pro-nuclear nutcase, I just don’t think we can get by without it in the long run… If someone can prove to me that stuff like the new Spanish 24/7 solar farms, which can generate electricity even when it is cloudy and/or dark (i.e. they are already doing this), can be rolled-out on a wide enough scale to obviate the need for nuclear in the long-run, I would dearly love to be convinced. However, it is not me that needs to be convinced, it is those that say it an’t be done; and – once free of political interference from the fossil fuel lobby – also our politicians!

        • otter17 Says:

          I’m open to what the next gen nuclear reactors have to offer, for sure. We ought to keep it on the radar screen, but also keep enhanced geothermal and electrical energy storage methods in mind.

  3. […] the last week I’ve been getting a stream of notes from anti-coal activist Leslie Glustrom about what may be signs of the inevitable collapse of the market for coal in the US. She […]

  4. […] Leslie Glustrom sends this update to the “War on Coal”: […]

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