Key Points

  • The U.S. passed peak production of high quality coal in 1990 in the Appalachian and the Illinois basin. Production of sub bituminous coal in Wyoming more than compensated for this decline in terms of volume and – according to its stated reserves – this trend can continue for another 10 to 15 years. []
  • Due to the lower energy content of sub bituminous coal, US coal production in terms of energy has already peaked 5 years ago – it is unclear whether this trend can be reversed. Also specific productivity per miner is declining since about 2000.
  • World proven reserves (i.e. the reserves that are economically recoverable at current economic and operating conditions) of coal are decreasing fast.
  • Coal production costs are steadily rising all over the world, due to the need to develop new fields, increasingly difficult geological conditions and additional infrastructure costs associated with the exploitation of new fields.
  • The Gillette coalfield, within the Powder River Basin in east-central Wyoming, is the most prolific coalfield in the United States. In 2006, production from the coalfield totaled over 431 million short tons of coal, which represented over 37 percent of the Nation's total yearly production. … the coal reserves estimate for the Gillette coalfield is 10.1 billion short tons of coal (6 percent of the original resource total).
  • Present estimates of coal reserves are based upon methods that have not been reviewed or revised since their inception in 1974, and many of the input data were compiled in the early 1970s. Recent programs to assess reserves in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are economically recoverable. Grist Part 1
  • Forecasting coal production until 2100

Peak Coal, Global Warming Policy and Exponential Math

Three reports say coal is not nearly so abundant, or cheap, as we think it is.

  • In December, USGS reported the results of its detailed look at the mammoth Gillette field in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the most productive coal region in the country.
  • Total coal in place is an estimated 201 billion tons, USGS estimated. That's enough to supply 182 years of domestic use, at current consumption rates.
  • Much of the Gillette coal is unavailable, because it's physically inaccessible
  • Recoverable coal, then, totals 77 billion tons. That's still enough for 70 years at present burn rates.
  • USGS plugged the economic factor into the equation. For companies to earn an 8 percent return, only 10.1 billion Gillette tons would be profitable to mine at prices of $10.50 per ton. That was the prevailing price a few years ago. Today, the price for Powder River Basin coal is around $8.75 per ton.
  • Also in 2007, a group of German scientists calling themselves the Energy Watch Group looked at global coal resources and reserves data. The quality of information that's available isn't particularly good, they concluded, but their analysis suggests that the size of reserves tends to be overestimated.
  • For the U.S., rising production of Wyoming's sub-bituminous coal has made up for declining production of Appalachian coal. Expressed as energy content, however, the Germans said U.S. coal production has already peaked, since sub-bituminous coal doesn't yield as much energy as the better quality stuff east of the Mississippi River.
  • Even modest rates of growth will shave a resource's lifetime considerably. If, for example, we have enough coal to last 300 years at current rates of consumption, it will last less than half that long if consumption grows 1 percent per year. Double the growth rate to 2 percent and it lasts less than a century.

Coal: Cheap and Abundant… Or Is It?


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License