(Or “Global Production of Alarmist Story-Lines Past Peak” or “Gloom-Mine Reserves Increasing According to Demand” or “New Scientist in Search of Renewable Sources Of Gloomy Stories” or [INSERT OWN HEADLINE HERE])
An editorial in last week’s (19 Jan) New Scientist magazine claims that “there is a case for nuclear power, but the future is with renewables”. Gone are the days of scientific optimism. The new scientists are now pessimists. The editorial concludes, following some seemingly intractable political problems with nuclear energy that “… don’t let’s delude ourselves that [nuclear power] still has a long-term role to play”.
This miserable theme is continued on page 38 by David Strahan in his article The Great Coal Hole (available in full here), in which he reports that the world is facing an imminent shortage of coal. “And not only because of logistics”, warns Strahan, “but also because of geology”. This runs counter to many previously held studies which have attempted to estimate how much black stuff we have left. One 1996 study even suggested that there may be as much as 7.8E12 tonnes (7,800,000,000,000) of coal – enough for around 1200 years at today’s rate of consumption.
According to the article, however, even the World Energy Council’s far more conservative 2007 estimate of 847 billion tonnes of known coal reserves world-wide (enough for 140 years at present consumption) may be vastly over-inflated. Known reserves of economically recoverable coal are actually shrinking faster than coal is being consumed, says Strahan.
Another less noticed reason is that in recent years many countries have revised their official coal reserves downwards, in some cases massively, and often by far more than had been mined since the previous assessment. For instance, the UK and Germany have cut their reserves by more than 90 per cent and Poland by 50 per cent … Figures for two of the world’s biggest coal producers are particularly hard to glean. Russia has failed to update its numbers since 1996, China since 1990. “There is really nothing very certain or clear-cut about reserves figures anywhere,” Clarke says. Even senior officials in the coal industry admit that the figures are unreliable. “We don’t have good reserves numbers in the coal business,” says David Brewer of CoalPro, the UK mine owners’ association.
A more sobre analysis of Britain’s coal situation, from 1993, is available from the New Scientist’s own archive. It reveals that the true size of the UK’s coal reserves has never been certain.
The nature of the real problem is well illustrated by the deceptively simple question of ‘How much coal is there in Britain?’ A great variety of answers has been provided over the years. A report of a Royal Commission in 1871 estimated the figure to be 149 billion tonnes. Reserve figures based on coal workable for the following hundred years were estimated in 1942 at 21 billion tonnes. In 1973, ‘operating reserves’ were estimated at 4 billion tonnes and in 1979 to be about 7 billion tonnes. Also in 1979, British Coal estimated ‘coal in place’ at 190 billion tonnes, of which about 45 billion tonnes might eventually be shown to be a reserve, a figure that has been taken to indicate that there is enough coal for the next 300 years at the prevailing rate of mining. Recently the British Geological Survey has suggested that the true operating reserves may be as little as 3 billion tonnes. So, over the years we have seen an extraordinary range of figures for Britain’s coal reserve/resource.
Evidence from the Coal Authority to a 2001 House of Lords Select committee suggested that the UK had even less coal.
The CA has consulted with the British coal industry and have advised the Cabinet Office Energy Review that estimated established reserves amount to 222 million tonnes with a further known potential of 380 million tonnes; in addition currently un-accessed deep mine and open cast resources potentially (see para 11 below) provide many years of future production at present levels.
These increasingly conservative figures appear to support Strahan’s thesis, albeit while detracting from its newsworthiness. But, as the evidence points out:
Section 5(6)(b) of the Coal Industry Act 1994 specifically prevents the CA from exploring for new coal or proving known occurrences. It is also barred from obtaining planning permission or any other authorisations required for carrying on coal mining operations. In today’s circumstances, this prevents an overall approach being adopted in the public interest. Equally important, known reserves of coal are universally in danger of being sterilised by non coal related surface developments. There is little, if any, effective planning policy to prevent the sterilisation of coal which may be required for working in the future. Unlike the situation with aggregates for example, there is no land banking policy for opencast coal embedded in the formalities of the Town and Country Planning system. Even if Britain’s considerable opencast and deep mine coal resources are not to be extensively worked under the existing planning regime, it is important that they should be kept available to facilitate any future change in policy which might favour their exploitation.
Uncertainty remains, even in the UK – a small island, one of the richest countries in the world, and one of the most comprehensively surveyed, by some of the keenest geologists and geographers. Nonetheless, the gloominess in the New Scientist continues…
Taken together, dramatic falls in some countries’ reserves coupled with the stubborn refusal of others to revise their figures down in the face of massive production suggest that figures for global coal reserves figures are not to be relied on. Is it possible that the sturdy pit prop of unlimited coal is actually a flimsy stick?
This seems to imply that something nefarious is going on. This “stubborn refusal” is presented as though it were a deliberate attempt to deceive, when in fact, as is clear, the truth is that there are no such data, even for the UK. How can we expect it to exist in Russia, and China, given their comparatively vast sizes, and arguably more limited human resources? The article goes on to explain that we know that coal is running out – in geological terms – in spite of the conspiracy to keep us misinformed, because price increases would have the effect of increasing known reserves, as geological reserves became economically viable.
Problem is, the real world seems to have forgotten this piece of economic lore. Although the price of coal has quintupled since 2002, reserves have still fallen. This is similar to what is happening with oil, where fresh reserves have not been forthcoming despite soaring prices. To a growing number of oil industry commentators this is because
we have reached, or are just about to reach, peak oil – the point at which oil production hits an all time high then goes into terminal decline.
That is to say that we know that prices have risen, and reported reserves have fallen, indicating that prices are rising because of depletion, not confounding economic factors. But Strahan has already explained that reserve reporting is unreliable. Now that they are being downgraded, he seems sufficiently confident in them to make some alarmist statements.
Yet we know that the downgrading of reserves has political causes. For example, one reason for the UK downsizing its reserves might just be because of Britain’s recent history. Coal mines in the UK were shut down amid a historic dispute between the Government and miners, and the declining cost of importing coal from elsewhere against the rising costs of domestic production, not because Britain had run out of coal. In the case of oil, the rising price has much to do with uncertainties caused post-9/11 and by the War in Iraq and tensions in the Middle East. Reluctance to invest in exploiting new reserves might reflect the fact that global economic forecasts are currently as gloomy as the New Scientist. With economic downturn comes a reduction in demand. Who would invest in bringing new sources online in the face of economic uncertainty? Furthermore, it is not true that known geological reserves can switch on and off according to the price. Mining is an expensive business, even more so when mistakes are made.
As the 1993 article tells us, in the wake of two economic recessions:
But recent years have seen the opposite trend, with a progressive decrease in the price of most fossil fuels. Variations in the price of a barrel of oil have resulted in oilfields being brought into production or ‘mothballed’ as the price has gone up, or down. In the short term, price variations of a commodity have little to do with available resources or reserves and everything to do with Gulf crises, new environmental legislation, the state of the economy or perceptions within the commodity market. In the longer term, however, the price must be related to the availability of resources and reserves and the ease and relative potential cost of transferring estimates from the resource category to the reserve category.
ie, politics not geology. But what is behind this idea that the super-abundance of coal is a fragile illusion, and that the truth is in just two decades we will run out? The first thing is a need to create stories about the future. This is no bad thing in itself. After all, the good news that we’ve got a millennium of coal left is as uplifting as the news that we’ve only got two decades left is depressing. But Strahan does not report about new research about the actual, physical amount of coal in the ground, but a fairly old and clunky way of divining that same data from proxies. In the process he forgets that both the downgrading of reserves and the current high price of energy can be explained by political forces rather than geological ones. Downgrading merely reflects a lack of any meaningful data, and the peculiarities of geopolitics and the market explain high prices. Second, the bigger storyline is the New Scientist’s editorial agenda, which seems bent on pursuing alarmism, and taking environmentalist political positions on matters which it really ought to be shedding light on. Strahan’s thesis also relies on the (controversial) work of M. King Hubbert:
To forecast coal production Rutledge borrowed a statistical technique developed for oil forecasting known as Hubbert linearisation. M. King Hubbert, after whom the method is named, was a the Shell geologist who founded the peak oil school of thought. In 1956 Hubbert famously predicted that US oil production would peak within 15 years and go into terminal decline. He was vindicated in 1970.
So what’s the truth? How much coal is there really left? Probably somewhere between the highest and the lowest estimate. Which still gives us good time for finding out how much is left, and developing alternatives. Hubbert said some interesting things about those, too:
… it appears that there exist within minable depths in the United States rocks with uranium contents equivalent to 1000 barrels or more of oil per metric ton, whose total energy content is probably several hundred times that of all the fossil fuels combined. The same appears to be true of many other parts of the world. Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than that made possible by the fossil fuels.
Not if the “new” scientists have their way, it isn’t. But even Strahan and New Scientist can’t help looking on the bright side, just a little bit:
The sliver lining to this gloomy scenario is its effect on climate. Forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assume more or less infinite replenishment of coal reserves, in line with traditional economic theory. Less coal means less carbon dioxide, so the impact on emissions could be enormous. Using one of the IPCC’s simpler climate models, Rutledge forecasts that total CO2 emissions from fossil fuel will be lower than any of the IPCC scenarios. He found that atmospheric concentration of CO2 will peak in 2070 at 460 parts per million, fractionally above what many scientists believe is the threshold for runaway climate change. “In some sense this is good news,” Rutledge says. “Production limits mean we are likely to hit the general target without any policy intervention.”
Hurrah for not having enough energy.