Energy analyst Richard Heinberg is working on a book about coal, tentatively titled Coal’s Future/Earth’s Fate, to be published by Post Carbon Press in spring 2009. It’s sure to be vital reading for anyone interested in tracking, understanding, and battling the enemy of the human race.

Happily, Heinberg is publishing working drafts of various parts of the book on his website. A few months ago he ran the introduction: “The Great Coal Rush (and Why It Will Fail).” This week, he’s got another great one up: “Coal in the United States.” It’s about coal reserve estimates and how they’ve been revised downward over time.

While the total quantity of coal produced continues to rise, the amount of energy it feeds into the economy peaked in 1998. That’s because the quality of U.S. coal has been declining for a while, as we burn through the good stuff (anthracite and bituminous) and get into the softer, dirtier stuff (sub-bituminous and lignite).

It now appears fairly clear that, depending on whose estimates you believe, production of U.S. coal will peak some time in the next several decades. And if we turn to coal for liquid fuel, or require carbon capture and sequestration (which reduces conversion efficiency), that peak could come much sooner.

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What’s it all mean? Here’s Heinberg’s conclusion:

It may be tempting to think of coal as a transitional energy source for the next few decades, while a longer-term energy strategy emerges. But in that case, an important question arises: Will there be sufficient investment capital and technical resources in three or four decades to fund the transition to the next energy source, whatever it may be? By that time (assuming EIA projections are reasonably accurate), demand for energy will be higher. The price of oil, gas, and coal will be higher — perhaps much higher — and so the nation will be spending proportionally much more of its GDP on energy than it does now. Meanwhile, the energy cost of building new infrastructure of any kind will be higher. Therefore it is likely that insufficient investment capital will be available for the large number of new energy projects required. The transition if deferred will thus be more expensive and difficult than it would be now. Indeed, the longer a transition to an ultimate (and sustainable) energy regime is put off, the harder that transition becomes.

Coal currently looks like a solution to many of America’s fast-growing energy problems. However, this is a solution that, if applied on a broad scale, seems certain only to exacerbate the nation’s energy dilemma in the long run, as well as contributing to an impending global climate catastrophe.

The piece is also reprinted on The Oil Drum, where the comment thread is characteristically educational.

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I’ll keep you posted on Heinberg’s book.

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