The world is running out of a critical fossil energy source: coal; so says the Energy Watch Group. This European consortium of scientists is working to quantify fossil and atomic energy shortages and develop scenarios for regenerative energy sources.
In a recent article, “Coal Futures”, American Scientist magazine summarized “Coal: Resources and Future Production”, a report published by the Energy Watch Group in March 2007. The report indicates that based on current consumption versus production rates, the United States has roughly 200 years of coal reserves remaining. However, according to the Energy Watch Group, China, the world’s fastest growing and largest coal consumer, has only about 40 years of domestic coal reserves left. Once that supply is exhausted, China will need to look for external sources to feed its coal habit.
Where, I wonder, will the Chinese look?
The Energy Watch Group’s projections are based upon fitting a bell-shaped curve to existing coal reserve data to predict the date for peak coal production. This same process was famously applied by Dr. M.K. Hubbert to accurately predict peak oil production in the United States in the mid 1970’s (the so-called Hubbert’s Peak). For more information on the debate over peak oil, check out my post “There is Still Plenty of Oil, Says CERA”.
There are some inherent dangers with this kind of predictive Gaussian curve fitting. First, resource reserve numbers must be accurately known; which for Chinese coal they are not. Second, rates of resource consumption must be well-understood; however, future coal consumption may be accelerated because the resource is the last alternative to other depleted fossil fuel sources. Third, regulatory constraints on resource utilization must be known; but, given the potential pollution and climate change ramifications of massive coal consumption, future governmental restrictions on coal use cannot be predicted today.
Despite possible uncertainties in their methods, the Energy Watch Group has published numbers that raise alarming questions about our energy future. While the United States is busy pouring resources into the Middle East to keep the oil flowing, what is being done to safeguard our domestic coal supplies?
In a “flat world” where currency and energy freely flow across international borders, the coal reserves of the United State might begin to look pretty appealing to the energy-hungry world of 2050. Is anything being done to prevent today’s exploiter from becoming tomorrow’s exploited?