You’ve Met Peak Oil: Welcome Peak Coal

I’ve said many times that peak oil alone will have the effect of ensuring that we reach peak total energy. All of our other energy sources begin with oil.  As the price of oil rises due to limited supply, the cost of other energy will rise as well, rationing demand.

The United States Geological Survey released a report last summer that clearly discusses what they describe as “peak coal” – their term, not mine.  The report shows this entire country is near if not already passed peak coal.  Peak coal simply means the same as peak oil – that moment when we’ve mined one-half of all our reserves.  The best coal and the easiest to get to coal was the first half.  The other half isn’t – it will be the most expensive.

Certainly Appalachia has passed peak coal.  The graph below shows clearly shows the year:  1940.  That was when the most coal was ever mined.  And while we’ve basically had a plateau of production since then, the graph shows how dramatically the drop-off is as we near resource depletion. (The USGS report uses 2005 figures, so there would be another inward spike during the recession of 2007-2009.)  The top graph is the BEST CASE case scenario.  The bottom graph shows more realistic production and decline.

(Decline curve for the Appalachian Basin, based on 30 billion tons of potentially economically producible coal and depletion of reserves at current rates. Addition of hypothetical 30 billion tons of reserves to data causes apparent short-term increase in production before ultimate decline. The projection does not illustrate potential changes in environmental regulation, technology, and economics that might make more or less of the coal profitable to mine.)

(Decline of Appalachian coal production, based on potential reserves of 11.3 billion tons of low-sulfur coal ≤ 0.6 lb sulfur/MMBtu) (Energy Information Agency, 1996, table B2).)

Eastern Kentucky coal production appears to have peaked in 1990:  “Eastern Kentucky…exhibits an almost continuous growth in coal produc­tion, from 35 million tons in 1961 to 128 million tons in 1990. Since 1990, eastern Kentucky production declined to about 95 million tons in 2005.”

It gets more stark:  “It appears that when the four counties in the Appalachian Basin (Greene County in Pennsylvania, Pike County in Kentucky, and Boone and Mingo Counties in West Virginia) that collectively produced about 113 million tons in 2005 are depleted within the next few decades, the Appalachian Basin, in its entirety, will enter into a period of steep decline unless large blocks of economically recoverable coal remain in the deep, unmined part of the basin.”

Sure sounds like peak fucking coal to me.

Each year we will witness an ever greater shortfall of the coal that we produce in the eastern U.S. compared to that which we demand for electricity generation in this part of the country.  The report states that this missing coal “may be replaced in several ways: by increased shipments of low-sulfur coal from Western States, by use of emission credits, by installation of scrubbers on existing powerplants that will allow use of higher sulfur coal, and by utilization of alternate fuels, such as natural gas.”

Shipping coal in from the western U.S. on diesel powered trains puts the price of energy at the mercy of peak oil.   Installing scrubbers on existing plants is very, very expensive (that’s why it hasn’t been done yet!).  Natural gas is more expensive than coal and subject to the same physical laws of depletion of any non-renewable resource. Emission credits are nothing but a political scam.

Bottom line:  even without the effects of peak oil, we have reached peak energy, in at least the Eastern U.S.  Adding peak oil into the mix simply proves that we’ve reached peak energy in the entire country.

To you and me, peak energy simply means higher costs for everything.  Electric light, refrigeration, water, heat, air condition, t.v., computer use, everything.  Higher costs mean less use, thus bringing us back full circle to the idea of peak energy.  We will never again use as much energy as we did in 2007.  And each succeeding year will see us use less than the year before.  This is energy descent.  Doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as long as we face it straight on and plan accordingly.

The National Coal Resource Assessment Overview

Pierce, B.S., and Dennen, K.O., eds., 2009, The National Coal Resource Assessment Overview: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1625–F, 402 p.

Read it here: http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1625f/

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