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Overestimated global coal reserves

coal-fired-plan02tAccording to recent studies global coal reserves may be much smaller than previously thought. Indeed, estimates are now of 662 billion tons instead of 850 billion tons.

That’s 23 percent smaller. So, what occurred with estimates of remaining oil is also true here : countries overestimated their coal reserves and peak coal is nearer than expected.

Coal accounts for more than a fifth of our primary energy sources. With smaller reserves, this makes it even more urgent to switch to alternatives.

As TreeHugger notes:

Dave Rutledge, the chair of Caltech’s engineering and applied sciences division, has release a new estimate of the world’s coal reserves that he says is more accurate than previous ones. The bad news: There’s still lots and lots of dirty coal in the ground.

The good news: There’s probably a lot less than we thought. His total estimate of all the coal that humans will ever get out of the ground is 662 billion tons, while the previous estimates had 850 billion tons still left in the ground. That makes a difference. Read on for more.

From Wired Magazine:

Rutledge argues that governments are terrible at estimating their own fossil fuel reserves. He developed his new model by looking back at historical examples of fossil fuel exhaustion.

For example, British coal production fell precipitously form its 1913 peak. American oil production famously peaked in 1970, as controversially predicted by King Hubbert. Both countries had heartily overestimated their reserves.

It was from manipulating the data from the previous peaks that Rutledge developed his new model, based on fitting curves to the cumulative production of a region. He says that they provide much more stable estimates than other techniques and are much more accurate than those made by individual countries.


And Rutledge is not alone thinking that coal reserves have been overestimated.

According to the The National Research Council’s Committee on Coal Research, Technology, and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy’s 2007 report:

“Present estimates of coal reserves are based upon methods that have not been reviewed or revised since their inception in 1974, and much of the input data were compiled in the early 1970’s. Recent programs to assess reserves in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually mineable reserves.”

(…) Using these new estimates, burning the world’s coal would lead to 460 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, which would cause a 2-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures.

That’s still too much according to many scientists who would like to see CO2 at 350 ppm, but that scenario would still be better than those based on the current hypotethical coal reserves.

Did we just replace flawed estimates with new flawed estimates? Maybe. It’s probably too early to know.

Either way, the math is simple. Less coal = good. Small reserves, big reserves, we should phase it out as quickly as possible. But we should always use the best information available and not cherry pick it because it is useful.

Other thing we got to stop is giving subsidies to these industries.

Indeed, those gigantic amounts of money – up to 300 billion USD globally to the UNEP  – are slowing down the switch to cleaner sources and are partly used to run gigantic ads campaigns that are misleading people.

All this money would be far better used in solar and other renewables as well as on energy efficiency…

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2 Comments
  1. As I understand it, you’re saying that having lower reserves is good because it means we can do less damage to the environment, and it’ll push the price up and encourage us to find alternatives. I don’t think that’s necessarily so, and that’s because of culture.

    Reserves depend on price
    Fossil fuel reserves in general are hard to estimate, even if you’re being purely scientific and there’s no financial incentive to fudge the figures up or down. Basically the higher the price of fossil fuels, the bigger the reserves.

    People often think of fossil fuels as sitting in big lumps. Coal is a huge chunk of coal, oil is sitting in vast underground caverns and so is gas. But it’s more complicated than that.

    Oil and gas sit in rocks with holes in them, like a great sponge. That’s why we pump in water or carbon dioxide to get them out, and why a reservoir is never “dry” but always has some stuff sitting in a corner somewhere. Maybe you could get it out, but it’d be a lot of trouble – like the recent oil find off the coast of Brazil, under 3km of sea then 1km of rock and 2km of salt and 1km of rock.

    Coal appears in layers between rock, and obviously there’s a difference between 0.02m of coal between 10m of rock and alternating 5m of coal and 2m of rock. That two-centimetre layer, there might be millions of tonnes there across a whole mountain, but is it worth the trouble to get it out? Do you count it or not? If you don’t count the 2cm layer, will you count the 3cm layer, or the 30cm layer? What if it’s 2cm of coal with 1m of sand, compared to 2cm of coal with 1m of hard granite, obviously the first is much easier to get out than the second. Where do you draw the line and count one but not the other?

    We draw the line with “how much will it cost to get out, and how much can we sell it for?” The geologists look at each area with these fossil fuels, and say that in principle they could get it all out. That’s the high number for fossil fuel reserves. Then they say, well realistically we can get it out but it’ll cost a fortune – we could get a barrel of oil from Titan, the moon of Saturn, but it’d cost a billion dollars. That’s the lower number.

    So reserves are assessed based on price. If you think that oil will be (say) $100 a barrel next year, then you’ll think that you can get into harder-to-reach places than you could if oil were $50 a barrel. So at $100/bbl we have reserves of (say) 1,000 billion barrels, and at $50/bbl we have reserves of (say) 800 billion barrels. What are the “true” reserves? Neither. It depends on the price. (The same goes for uranium and other minerals, by the way.)

    Thus everyone is lying, and at the same time telling the truth :) Just looking at what is physically in the ground the reserves are absolutely enormous. But looking at what is going to be profitable to extract at different prices, that changes the reserves considerably.

    Culture
    I don’t really look forward to low reserves. That’s because lower production leads to higher prices. Now, in a perfect free market higher prices for fossil fuels would lead to people pursuing other forms of energy. But we don’t have a perfect free market. As you say, we have subsidies.

    But as well as subsidies, there’s people’s culture. As I’ve said before, driving is not a rational choice – people don’t carefully consider each journey they have to make and decide whether to use car, bus, train, bike or walk it, which will be the most convenient and efficient for this particular trip. They just automatically go to whatever they’re used to using.

    Thus I will walk past my woman’s car to go 3km to the shops, while my friend drives 400m down the corner to work in the morning. The same applies to the way we heat and cool ourselves, what we eat and buy, and so on.

    We’re not the perfectly-informed rational actors supposed by the free market advocates, we have a culture, sometimes we do things just because we like to do things that way, not because they’re the optimal choice.

    Jared Diamond talks about this a bit in Collapse, how as their land cooled the Norse in Greenland continued trying to farm cattle and wear wool from sheep and refused to eat fish and wear animal skins, though they had the examples of the Inuit to show them how it was done. They’d rather die than change. Not really a conscious decision, more a lack of imagination, not being able to imagine any different way of life. That’s culture.

    If culture remains unchanged, then as the price of fossil fuels increases we don’t seek alternatives, we just shout at the government to reduce fuel taxes or even bring in subsidies, we encourage them to invade countries with large oil reserves and so on. And the rising price and wars and so on bring a lot of misery and chaos.

    The other issue about price is that it’s so volatile, people see it as temporary. This year of 2008 with oil rushing to $150 and down to under $40/bbl will be remembered for a long time, I think. Whenever price goes up this will increase the stated oil reserves, so people will think, “well it’s expensive but we have lots of it” and not change. When the price goes down they’ll say, “well why should we change when it’s cheap?” As a market signal price is a very fuzzy picture.

    I don’t care about the Earth
    All that’s why I think that if reserves are low it’s not necessarily a good thing. I’ve said before that I don’t care about the Earth, I care about people. If we have low reserves and do nothing to seek alternatives, then yes the Earth is saved from catastrophic climate change, but there’ll be a lot of misery and chaos. If we have high reserves and burn them up then climate change will also give us misery and chaos.

    Since I don’t care about the Earth, exactly where the misery and chaos of humans comes from doesn’t matter to me. I just want to avoid misery and chaos. So I don’t hope for high or low fossil fuel reserves, I hope we just stop burning all that shit and move towards a better life for all humanity, not just a few rich buggers in the West. I hope our culture changes.

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A French Management professional - now for hire - Edouard Stenger has been selecting since 2007 the latest headlines and best researches on sustainable development, climate change, environmental issues, cleantech and the world energy sector.

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We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. — Native American Proverb