Turns out we don’t know how much there is
Yesterday, the National Academy of Sciences released a Congressionally mandated report on coal-related R&D challenges. Coal-state senators Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) requested a report on possible impediments to future coal production, and areas that need to be researched to keep the coal coming.
Given that essentially coal-positive mandate, naturally NAS introduced the resultant report in its press release thusly:
Because coal will continue to provide a substantial portion of U.S. energy for at least the next several decades, a major increase in federal support for research and development is needed to ensure that this natural resource is extracted efficiently, safely, and in an environmentally responsible manner …
However, even if one follows Specter and Byrd and assumes we’re going to keep relying on coal rather than trying to determine if we should, the report is a pretty grim read. (NB: I’ve read the brief [PDF] and closely skimmed the full report [PDF].) Here are the basic conclusions:
Our coal reserve and location estimates are scandalously bad, based on data and methodology not updated since the early 1970s. We don’t have a good idea how much recoverable coal we have to work with. It’s highly likely, however, that the "250 year supply" talking point deployed by coal boosters is, um, horsepoop:
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.
We have no idea how much coal we’ll be using in 10 years, and even less of an idea about 20 years out:
Forecasts suggest that demand for coal over the next 10-15 years is likely to range from 25 percent above to 15 percent below 2004 levels. Further into the future, forecasts range from 70 percent above to 50 percent below 2004 levels.
Most of the easy coal has been mined out, so getting to the remaining coal is going to be less safe …
The coal mines of the future will encounter a range of new or more difficult mining and processing challenges as more easily accessed coal seams are depleted and the industry turns to less accessible. … There are major knowledge gaps and technology needs in the areas of survival, escape, communications systems, and emergency preparedness and rescue.
… and dirtier:
As mining activities extract coal from deeper and operationally more difficult seams, a range of existing environmental issues and concerns will be exacerbated and new concerns are likely to arise, particularly related to greater disturbance of hydrologic systems, ground subsidence, and waste management at mines and processing plants.
And finally, we’re still mining old-school, so we need to dump a bunch of money into advanced mining techniques; our coal transport network is large, fragile, and poorly understood, so we need to figure that out; and if we’re really serious about sequestering massive amounts of CO2, we should start determining where it’s possible geologically.
I guess if you’re a coal-state senator, you read this and think, OK, time to open the federal coffers and pour some money on these problems.
But if you’re not — if you see another century of coal as an option rather than a necessity — the only sane reaction is: frack, this ain’t worth it!
Why would we want to keep ourselves lashed to a fossil fuel that’s increasingly dirty and dangerous to get at? Why would we want to spend millions, possibly billions on new research and infrastructure around coal when we don’t know a) whether it will last for even 100 years, and b) how much we’ll want to use even a few years from now? Does that sound like a wise long-term investment?
In other news, the sun will shine and the wind will blow for hundreds of centuries into the future. We know for a fact that 100 years out we’ll be wanting to use them as our primary source of power. They are clean, effectively inexhaustible, and increasingly easy to exploit.