COAL - The Roundup

Below the fold there is a roundup of the five reports published in the first half of 2007 on the global coal situation. They are all broadly in agreement saying that there is likely to be less coal available than traditionally thought.

Photo by Tim Ellis (cc)

Thanks to Douglas Low of The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC) for his assistance compiling this roundup.

1. Energy Watch Group

Read the report (PDF, 630 KB, 47 pp).

A report released by the Energy Watch Group concludes that global coal production will peak about 2025. From the report's executive summary, conclusion and recommendation:

Global coal reserve data are of poor quality, but seem to be biased towards the high side. Production profile projections suggest the global peak of coal production to occur around 2025 at 30 percent above current production in the best case. There should be a wide discussion on this subject leading to better data in order to provide a reliable and transparent basis for long term decisions regarding the future structure of our energy system. Also the repercussions for the climate models on global warming are an important issue.
Some of the report's conclusions: Data are of poor quality; Six countries dominate coal globally USA, Russia, India, China, Australia, South Africa; Fastest reserve depletion in China, USA beyond peak production.

If the report conclusions are correct, this is good news for climate change and bad news for the global economy. The implication is that as natural gas supplies get tight over the next two decades, coal will be unable to replace gas for producing electricty. It also implies that there is no long-term future for producing liquid fuel from coal (see Fischer-Tropsch, better known as coal-to-liquids).

Click to Enlarge

This report has been discussed and summarized by Richard Heinberg: Burning the Furniture
And by Shaun Chamberlin on The Oil Drum: Peak Coal - Coming Soon?

2. The Future of Coal, a study by B. Kavalov and S. D. Peteves of the Institute for Energy (IFE), prepared for European Commission Joint Research Centre

Read the report (PDF, 1.7 MB, 52 pp).

The report identifies three trends:

  • Proved reserves are decreasing fast – unlike oil and gas.
  • Bulk of coal production is concentrated within a few countries.
  • Coal production cost are rising all over the world.

The following observations are also made:

  • Hard coal in the EU is largely depleted.
  • Six countries (USA, China, India, Russia, South Africa, Australia) hold 84% of world hard coal reserves. Four out of these six (USA, Russia, China, Australia) also account for 78% of world brown coal reserves.
  • Growth in consumption has not been matched by increasing reserves leading to falling R/P ratios.
  • Poor investment over the past 10-15 years.
  • The USA and China — former large net exporters — are gradually turning into large net importers with an enormous potential demand, leaving Australia as the “ultimate global supplier of coal”. However all of Australia’s steam coal exports equal to only 5% of Chinese steam coal consumption.

The report was discussed by Richard Heinberg: Coal’s Future in Doubt
Richard Heinberg, Global Public Media [MuseLetter], 09 May 2007:

The EWG [Energy Watch Group] report has enormous implications for climate change, global energy, and particularly for future electricity supply and steel production in the US and China. Previously, virtually everyone in the fields of energy policy and energy analysis—as well as nearly everyone involved in discussions about climate change—had assumed that the world’s coal endowment was so enormous that no limits would be encountered anytime this century. The EWG’s conclusions turn this assumption on its head... Therefore any new analysis of global coal supplies, following on the heels of the EWG report, warrants considerable interest... We have not had to wait long. “The Future of Coal,” a study by B. Kavalov and S. D. Peteves of the Institute for Energy (IFE), prepared for European Commission Joint Research Centre, is ready in final draft and will be published within days... Early in their paper the authors ask, “Will coal be a fuel of the future?” Their disturbing conclusion, many pages later, is that “The analysis in the preceding chapters indicates that coal might not be so abundant, widely available and reliable as an energy source in the future.” Along the way, they state “the world could run out of economically recoverable (at current economic and operating conditions) reserves of coal much earlier than widely anticipated.”... In summary, we now have two authoritative studies reaching largely consistent conclusions with devastating implications for the global economy... For China and the United States, the world’s two most coal-dependent countries, the message could not be clearer: whether or not global climate concerns are taken seriously, it is time to fundamentally revise the current energy paradigm.

3. Coal of the Future, a study by B. Kavalov of the Institute for Energy (IFE), prepared for European Commission Joint Research Centre

Read the report (PDF, 2.0 MB, 64 pp).

Similarly titled, B. Kavalov has prepared a second report for the European Commission: Coal of the Future. This time focussing on the technologies of the coal industry. The last section of the report covers long term market outlooks where the following observations are made:

We calculate that China has 30 years of life in hard coal reserves and it is difficult to see if production can be maintained at over 2 Btpa past 2030 or 2040, which will focus attention on technological change, including nuclear and use of low quality, expensive-to-mine coal deposits.

Consistent demand coupled with declining production could produce a potentially significant shortfall in supply and demand profiles by 2015. UK will be producing below 10 Mtpa, Germany will produce about 10 Mtpa of hard coal and Poland will at best be meeting its needs but is more likely to be importing coal. Between 2015 and 2020, South Africa may well have declined as an exporter to a level below 60 Mtpa.

This would suggest a total deficit of nearly 50 Mt by 2015, if demand is consistent with today’s levels, and by 2020 this could be 80Mt, as South Africa slows its export production. Post 2020, we believe South African exports could decline quickly to a level of 40-50 Mtpa, which could have a dramatic effect on coal supply if customers do not plan adequately.

China will decline as an exporter slowly (some would disagree and believe the country will exit the export market as quickly as they entered it) and create a shortfall in tonnage. South Africa, as the swing supplier, will have limited flexibility after 2015 and from 2020 may decline rapidly. Indonesia will probably see exports decline from 2010 onwards as existing operations come to the end of their lives.

4. Dave Rutledge, California Institute of Technology

Read the slides (PPT, 2.12 MB, 69 pp).

Dave Rutledge is an American researcher, based at the California Institute of Technology, who thinks that global coal reserves may be less than currently thought. He starts his presentation with a discussion of oil production / depletion, moves on to coal reserves, climate change modelling and finishes with some alternative energy solutions. Dave’s research page contains a PowerPoint presentation, and roughly the same slides are in the video version which you can watch on YouTube. As an example of a country that got its coal reserves wrong, Dave analyses what happened to the UK coal industry. Dave states:

“There is also a spreadsheet file there with the raw data and extra plots that do not fit in a presentation, together with a link to an archive webcast from a talk I gave at the University of California at San Diego on May 11. I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the early 70's when the coal miners brought down the Heath government. The critical part of this discussion is the British experience with coal, because it is the outstanding example of a country with major coal reserves that has gone through the complete rise and fall. The American examples for Pennsylvania anthracite and Virginia are much smaller amounts of coal.”
Dave sent ODAC a more up-to-date copy of his PowerPoint presentation Hubbert’s Peak, The Question of Coal, and Climate Change (2.12 Mb).

This report has been summarized and discussed in some detail on The Oil Drum website: The Coal Question and Climate Change Dave Rutledge, The Oil Drum, 25 June 2007.

If you have a spare hour, it is worth watching Dave's video presentation.

5. US National Academy of Sciences

Read the report brief (PDF, 2.46 MB, 4 pp).

The US National Academy of Sciences have just released a report on coal, the fifth report in as many months suggesting global coal reserves may be considerably less than commonly believed. Except that this report suggests taking up to 10 years to determine an accurate estimate of US coal reserves. The report questions the myth of enough coal for 250 years, indeed, is certain there is enough coal only to 2030, and that is at current rates of production. The full report costs $US36-42.30, depending on version, but the crux of the report is available free, in the Report Brief (PDF, 2.46 Mb, 4 pages). All emphasis in bold is ODAC’s:

Accurate and comprehensive estimates of national coal reserves are essential for a coherent national energy strategy, particularly for community, workforce, and infrastructure planning. Although the United States is endowed with a vast amount of coal, coal reserves (i.e., the coal that can be economically mined using current mining practices) are a small proportion of total coal resources.

Present estimates of coal reserves— which take into account location, quality, recoverability, and transportation issues—are based upon methods that have not been updated since their inception in 1974, and much of the input data were compiled in the early 1970s. Recent programs to assess coal recoverability in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually recoverable. Such findings emphasize the need for a reinvigorated coal reserve assessment program using modern methods and technologies.

A coordinated federal-state-industry initiative to determine the magnitude and characteristics of the nation’s recoverable coal reserves, using modern mapping, coal characterization, and database technologies, should be instituted with the goal of providing policy makers with a comprehensive accounting of national coal reserves within 10 years. The report estimates that such an initiative, which should be lead by the U.S. Geological Survey and involve participation by the Energy Information Administration at DOE, states, and industry, will require additional funding of approximately $10 million per year.

From the News Release:
To formulate national energy policies, federal policymakers need accurate estimates of the amount, location, and quality of mineable coal. Such estimates are particularly important for community, workforce, and infrastructure planning.It is clear that there is enough coal at current rates of production to meet anticipated needs through 2030, and probably enough for 100 years, the committee said. However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply for the next 250 years.

Previously on The Oil Drum

These articles from Heading Out:

Some history on Coal EROI and UK coal numbers
Another thought on coal supply
Coal Mining Reserves - a cautious note
So will it be the Emperor Coal?

Lower quality goals from an emmisions point of view are very bad news, and persumably are less suited to CTL because of their lower energy quantity. Also the radiation and heavy metal content of different seams varies. Good news for the planet bad news for us. Bring on the nukes?

“the world could run out of economically recoverable (at current economic and operating conditions) reserves of coal much earlier than widely anticipated.”

What changes when the economics do? i.e. Will we see more economically recoverable coal as prices go up?

What changes when the economics do? i.e. Will we see more economically recoverable coal as prices go up?

That's a good question. It depends on what happens to costs. If costs of extraction rise at the same rate as prices rise, then the economics are no different. In particular, energy prices have a big input to general inflation. You end up chasing your own tail.

Surely if the energy ROI is positive, then so would be the financial ROI?

Apologies, I haven't thoroughly read all of the reports, I was wondering if there was a quick answer to the question that the peak oil skeptics like to use - i.e. 'It's not economic at the moment'

"Surely if the energy ROI is positive, then so would be the financial ROI?"

For some production scale, yes.

But the minimum scale depends on salaries, non-energetic inputs, interest and ERoEI. And the dependence on ERoEI grows very fast when ERoEI approaches 1.

Surely if the energy ROI is positive, then so would be the financial ROI?

There is a lot of overlap, but it's not 1:1. For example, if you are producing gas from a well but don't have infrastructure to deliver it to a market, the gas is flared. Therefore it may have a high EROEI, but would have poor ROI.

Conversely, if you can use the gas to turn tar sand into syncrude, which can be more easily transported to a market, then the tar sand has a positive ROI even if it has a poor EROEI.

In general though, a back of the envelope formula is

C = nP + F

where C is the cost of producing a barrel of oil equivalent, n is the number of BOE used, P is the price per BOE, and F is non-energy (fixed) cost.

then the required price for break-even is:

P = F / (1-n)

Here I have assumed that the non-energy costs are fixed, which may not be the case. In practice, these costs may also rise, e.g. rising cost of steel.

Note this equation incorporates EROEI.

To illustrate how this works, an example. With an oil price of $40/bbl, I estimate that my turkey offal syncrude costs $80/bbl to produce. At what oil price do I break-even? The answer is not $80/bbl. Of my costs, let's say $20 is direct energy cost, and $60 are fixed costs (plant etc). Therefore

P = $60 / (1-0.5) = $120

In this example the EROEI was 2:1. As EROEI decreases, the break even price increases.

I see you are saying n = 1/EROEI so that 0.5 = 1/(2). This works for fuels not wind and solar where depreciation has to be converted to energy equivalents, with interest being a somewhat fixed cost. In the case of corn ethanol (say EROEI = 1.25, n = 0.8) the sale price in effect gets an add-on from the tax credit.

I think mechanised coal mining will stop when it gets into the EROEI range of 2 to 4. Gubmints just won't have the revenue to subsidise it.

What changes when the economics do? i.e. Will we see more economically recoverable coal as prices go up?

Yes, with the appropriate(?) increase in the number of slaves, we will see more economically recoverable coal.

Heavy machinery has sort of made slavery for coal obsolete.

Cheap energy made machinery possible which made slavery obsolete. Slaves went the way of mules and oxen; all three of which should make a comeback. New bankruptcy laws anyone?

Thats dumb. Energy costs would have to rise 100 fold for people to even start considering slavery as a possible replacement for heavy machinery. 100 slaves cant compete with 1 heavy backhoe and they take more energy to feed anyways than the backhoe.

Thats before the extra cost of keeping them locked up. Energy costs can't rise that high simply because the replacements are too easily within reach for far too long of a timespan. Nuclear and wind complimented by hydro are cheaper at electric production than oil today and are close to competitive with coal, and for all practical purposes unlimited. Slavery became obsolete when energy was far more expensive (kw/hr per man hour) than it was today with far inferior technology to make use of it. The notion of a return of slavery for industry is ludicrously naive.

The most noteworthy passage from the foregoing IMO:

Recent programs to assess coal recoverability in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually recoverable.

The BP stat review 2007 says this:

Proved reserves of coal - Generally taken to be those quantities that geological and engineering information indicates with reasonable certainty can be recovered in the future from known deposits under existing economic and operating conditions.


And BP also have these gems on coal R/P ratios:

The Middle East 399 years
Japan 268 years

Also note that Japanese coal production increased 21% last year. Whilst Middle East coal production was static.

What's the problem?

BP on oil:

Proved reserves of oil - Generally taken to be those quantities that geological and engineering information indicates with reasonable certainty can be recovered in the future from known reservoirs under existing economic and operating conditions.

I won't bother posting their definition of proved gas reserves!

399 years of Middle East coal! What are we worrying about? Ah, the entire ME only produced 600 thousand tonnes of oil equivalent of coal last year, some 0.02% of world supply or around about enough one medium town in England.

Thanks Chris. Great to have an overview of all five reports in one place!

I watched the entire video, and found him to be very convincing on most accounts. The only question I would have asked him was how a restricted production quota would have affected the growth lines.

Hi PG,

Governments can cause fossil-fuel production to increase through subsidies and sales quotas. I think that nationalizing the coal mines in Britain probably increased the cumulative coal production by one or two billian tonnes, and these shifts are visible in the Hubbert linearizations. Similarly, governments could cause fossil-fuel production to decrease if new leases are restricted. Without new leases, coal production on US federal lands would fade away. I think that this would cause a shift downward in the Hubbert linearizations.

For this to be a political possibility, it is important that the current strong 20% to 30% growth in renewables continues, so that an alternative to coal for producing electricity develops.


“Production profile projections suggest the global peak of coal production to occur around 2025 at 30 percent above current production in the best case.”

However, it was reported in the recent TOD discussion on “CO2 Capture and Storage: The Energy Costs” ...

“Overall such processes raise the energy costs to produce the same amount of electricity in a cleaner way with 24-40% for new (supercritical) conventional coal plants using post combustion and 14% to 25% for coal based Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) systems using pre combustion.”

So, it doesn’t look like we can increase production of electricity from seqestered coal combustion very much!

So much for plug-in electric cars?


The difficulty is perhaps one of timing, coal markets will be getting tight in Europe just as CCS become technically viable (assuming it every really does). At that point coal will be getting expensive and scarce making the first power stations with CCS and 14-40% higher coal combustion look hopelessly inefficient.

It depends on the price of CO2 emissions as to whether this inefficiency can be economically tolerated but given the very real risk of gas shortages and nuclear decommission no price on carbon will be enough to “waste” all that extra coal (read electricity) on CCS. The electricity will be too valuable in the short term to invest large amounts in CCS.

A resource stressed future is dirty future?

If insufficient coal supplies rule out large scale CCS then we have a CO2 problem as Hansen tells us the only way to keep CO2 concentrations below 450ppmv is with aggressive CCS. Although these coal reserves are less than Hansen’s work is based on, with CCS their combustion is more than enough to produce the dangerous concentrations he warns of.

This is the way it is now. CCS will never be economical unless there is some cost to the CO2. If impending doom won't do it, then nothing will.

This is why I disfavor coal---even with proposed carbon capture---versus nuclear.

When the shit hits the fan---and there's no doubt it will at some point---people will immediately turn off the carbon capture to get 40% more electricity for "free". The politics will be simple and very effective in any economic downturn: "THEM ENVIRO-NAZIS WANT YOU TO SUFFER IN THE HEAT AND THE DARK AND MAKE YOU PAY TREE HUGGER TAXES!" Imagine what a typical macho guy who can't afford to run his beloved truck any more will vote for. He's already inclined to believe that we could have gushers of cheap American oil but for the environmentalists.

People aren't likely to "turn off" nuclear waste disposal in anywhere as cavalier a way as CO2. There is no way to refit a nuclear plant into emitting lots of CO2.

One relies on good will of men and sacrifice to reduce carbon, and one relies on physical reality.

And unreprocessed nuclear waste is really 80% potential fuel and 20% waste (numbers made up but you get the idea).

And unreprocessed nuclear waste is really 80% potential fuel and 20% waste (numbers made up but you get the idea).

Unfortunately theres not a simple way to break it down. Spent fuel is either 50% potential fuel and 50% waste for UREX extraction only in light water reactors (have to reenrich) or 97% potential fuel and 3% waste in CANDU reactors (no enrichment needed) or 98% potential fuel for MOX... or if you're only counting fissile material its 98% waste and 1% fuel for UREX or 2% for MOX, but 98% for breeder reactors...

Okay I can see why you decided to use made up numbers that communicate the general idea.

One way to look at it is that the 70,000 tonnes of spent fuel currently destined for burial at Yucca Mountain would, if reprocessed, provide the fuel for $1 TRILLION worth of electricity at wholesale.

I'd just like to note that Dave Rutledge and EWG point the peak to the same date, 2025.

Having two different studies pointing to this same epoch is quite remarkable and an important sign of the general soundness of the current Coal cycle.

If a second Coal cycle doesn't unfold rapidly in Europe, in less than ten years we'll be facing shortages of Oil, Coal and possibly Natural Gas.

I'm feeling very Olduvai Gorgish today.

1. Population expansion overtakes the rate of global energy supply expansion - per capita energy supply peaks and begins to decline.

2. Oil peaks 2005/2006. Total global energy supply hits or nears absolute peak - per capita energy supply begins a steeper decline. Coal use is expanded rapidly and with no regard for environmental impact to try to mitigate per capita energy declines, with

3. coal peak/natural gas peak ~2020-2025 - per capita energy supply plummets

4. Population collapses.

5. A "White's Law" end of civilization.

Kenny, you're assuming:

a) There will be no alternative fossil fuel cycles;

b) There will be no renewable energy alternatives entering the market;

c) There will be no rebound on Nuclear energy.

It is true that PO will trigger also a peak in energy per capita worldwide - it is too late to avoid that. But that doesn't have to be permanent - that's why we're hanging around at TOD.

The big question of course is: can alternative energy, conservation/efficiency spread fast and far enough to offset simultaneous declines in oil, natural gas and coal.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sunday, I believe this might be possible given our big brains and desire for survival.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday, I think about population overshoot and peak everything (other nonrenewable commodities besides fossil fuel, overshoot of renewable resources like commercial fishing, etc.), and it's full-blown doom and gloom.

The big question of course is: can alternative energy, conservation/efficiency spread fast and far enough to offset simultaneous declines in oil, natural gas and coal.

Of course it can. One might as well wonder if its even possible to begin industrial civilization to begin with without any infrastructure or industry.


I am strangely comforted by this scenario.

First of all, given that I have been most concerned about GW, it looks like CO2 will start to decline at step 3, 2020-2025 -- better than I was expecting. Although, this is not to say that GW will not still inflict a lot of pain and suffering.

Secondly, going through the first peak of oil may give hyumanity the kick in the butt it needs work the problem, before coal/NG decline sets in.

Thirdly, I'll probably be dead before the worst of the popoulation collapse --- given a slow slide from 3 to 4.


Acknowledgement of a near term coal peak doesn't yet seem to have reached the ranks of big league climate commentators. I say this just having seen a panel discussion on the TV doco 'The Great Global Warming Swindle' on Australian ABC. Panellists included an IPCC delegate and mining industry advisors.

I'm sure there was a recent link on TOD to a European Tribune item on China's coal peaking within just a few years. If that is a key driver of world trade the implications could be major. Economic slowdown could hit home well before climate problems.

The vast majority of climate change scientists including the IPCC reports don’t even recognise peak oil yet – Hansen is the exception, see his treatment here: Implications of "Peak Oil" for Atmospheric CO2 and Climate

I wouldn’t hold your breath for peak coal analysis to influence climate change thinking. All we can do is try and promote these studies and challenge people when they wave their hands around talking of "250 years of coal".

Hi Chris,

Thanks for putting these together. I think it is terrific that Jim Hansen is connecting the issues of fossil fuel depletion and climate change.

Dave Rutledge's presentation is really really good. I don't know if he reads this site, but if so - Dave, fabulous presentation very well given.

Cuchulainn (who has more spare hours than he'd like right now)

I'm very surprised by this. It seemed intuitively true to me that there is more coal than oil and gas. Both were derived from coal I thought.

Are people sure these numbers don't derive from current efforts to explore for coal? In Australia's case, coal production is simply limited by demand and so there is no economic incentive to prospect for new coal reserves.

BTW I'm not surprised by the peak in China's production in 2025. The rate of expansion there has been phenomenal. China has better ramp up it's capacity to build nukes over the next 15 years.

Hi Transition,

Coal is usually associated with deposits on land, while oil and gas are primarily associated with marine deposits. It's two different tracks.

Coal reserves go the other way from oil and gas reserves. Oil and gas are hard to find. People are looking hard for it, and there are expectations of finding more. With coal, it frequently goes the other way. People know where it is, and when more careful surveys are done, they find factors that impede ultimate recovery.

These reports seem to concentrate on what I would call “conventional” coal. Conventional coal I would define as coal that can be extracted by modern mining methods.

There is however what I will call “unconventional” coal. This is coal that can be accessed by underground coal gasification (UCG). There is a good section on UCG in the third report, Coal of the Future.

In section 4.4.1 on page 34 of the report it notes that some 600Bt of coal that can be accessed by UCG, representing an increase in coal reserves of 66%. It also goes on to state:

“If UCG is employed to produce gas, the resource may exceed natural gas resources. The total volume gas available from the estimated UCG reserves for the leading countries studied is 6,900 Tcf (194 Tcm). This compares with a proven world gas reserve (BP statistical review2006) of 6,300 Tcf (180 Tcm).”

The potential of UCG to release CO2 into the atmosphere does not look good from a climate change perspective, especially as the economics of UCG look to be close to being competitive now. Carbon capture and storage does look to be more feasible with UCG though

Maybe, just maybe, we have a technology that could significantly alleviate oil and natural gas depletion, but there could be a nasty price to pay on the climate change front.

I am wondering if we will see quite a bit of UCG. It would seem like it would be just the thing for China and Europe.

According to pages 40-41 of the "Coal of the Future" report:

China has probably the lead market for UCG, and the greatest incentive, with few alternatives to meet its power and liquid hydrocarbon requirements. It is also well ahead already in establishing a technology base for UCG, although State intervention could help or hinder its development.

To date construction of in-seam gasifiers in China involves the use of underground mining methods. The Chinese UCG work has involved some 16 trials in shallow coal in various mining companies, and the programme is supported by the Centre for Underground Mining and Technology (CUMT), which has extensive laboratory facilities, including a 4m long test
chamber for the simulation of underground tests. Not much is known about the success of the programme, apart from a few test results.

The State oil company, Petrochina is starting a deep-seam UCG field trial leading to commercial production in Liaoning Province, North East China. Seismic surveying and drilling for oil had identified a thick seam of deep lignite, which might be suitable for the UCG trial.

Railroads Bet on Coal Despite Pollution

Railroads Put Money on Coal Despite Pollution, Economic Concerns

"The facts are pretty simple. It is the single cheapest way to generate a kilowatt hour," said Donald Broughton, a railroad analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons. "Are there regulatory challenges as a result of environmental concerns? Absolutely. But this is still a fairly free market."

Senior citizen got active after reading peak oil and the oil drum.

On energy front now. We've been active on the legal front for 15 years.

I emphasize legal front.

I think we should be leaving fossil fuels in the ground for later usage. We should use only as much fossil fuels as necessary to develop renewable energy sources and use mostly renewable energy.

We either capture renewable energy and use it instead of fossil fuels, or it is lost. Once you use the fossil fuels that have taken millions of years to form, it is gone. We should be using renewable as primary source of energy and fossil fuels only as a secondary source of energy.