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March 23, 2006

If They Have No Oil, Let Them Eat Coal

I highly recommend that everyone read John Quiggin's coal-focused corrective to the peak-oil crowd, it's a nice dose of calm in one of those weird issues that's simultaneously ignored by most Americans and then hyped to hysterical levels by those involved in it (see this Salon story for more on that).

The basic shape of the river is this: oil is finite. At some point, we will have used up 50%+1 of the world's reserves, and we will then be on the downward sloping side of the "peak." According to some calculations, that either has happened, or will quite shortly. There'll still be loads of oil left, but it'll be increasingly complicated and expensive to extract. Certain folks have made this into a veritable eschatology, crying that peak oil will detonate civilization as we know it, hurling the advanced world back into a crude, dystopic existence not seen since the medieval period. Certain other folks believe them. They are wrong.

Too often, the counter-arguments here rely on untested, or unproven, technologies. There's a strange tendency to seek salvation in futurism and futurism alone. Thus, you have the hype around the hydrogen economy, cellulosic ethanol, biofuels, and all the rest. Make no mistake, these are promising, potent, technologies, but none are sure bets. Nevertheless, there's no shortage of energy sources in the world, some are just less economical than others. Use of wind, nuclear, solar, tidal, natural gas, ethanol, and all the rest could be heavily ramped up and subsidized during an energy crisis. Extreme conservation measures could be rapidly implemented. But, in the end, we know what we'd turn to: coal.

John lays out the flexibility and uses of coal in great detail over at his place. Suffice to say, coal can power basically everything we use, and it's unimaginably plentiful. It can even be transformed into gas, through techniques that are rapidly becoming economical. Coal's cost comes in its CO2 emissions, which warm the planet and could eventually render us all screwed. But new technologies, notably gasification (which could allow it to run cars), render carbon extraction and sequestration fairly straight-forward, so that problem, at least in theory, is pretty surmountable. Don't believe me? Ask the National Resources Defense Council.

None of this is to downplay the costs or dangers of an energy crunch, but we're not teetering on the brink of oblivion just because we use a lot of oil. Alternatives are plentiful, just not cheap. But as petroleum becomes more scarce and increasingly pricey, the relative expense of its competitors will start looking a whole lot better.

Cross-Posted From Tapped

March 23, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

Yes, but...

..even barring global warming, fuel scarcity has unfortunate economic effects, especially on poor folks here and developing areas everywhere else. There is a rational middle ground between New-Dark-Ages and Petroleum-Is-Limitless fantasists, and that middle ground in the medium-term is starting to look cloudy. JQ makes all the right noises about capacity tightness and price spikes, but he doesn't follow that thread to its eventual denouement. A no-spare-capacity, growing-demand future would indeed make all sorts of things economic that aren't now, at the price of very ugly price behavior as the world adjusted.

In the short term, I (dyodd, ymmv, etc etc etc) sold out of my energy overweight early this year, but that's a no-war-in-Iran/high-crude-inventories play. In the medium- and long-term, I shall be long fuels. Price volatility is great for speculators. Not so much for most people.

Posted by: wcw | Mar 23, 2006 1:55:05 PM

The American Society for Peak Oil, which is sort of a reality-based group that tries to figure out what to do about Peak Oil, pointed out that this has already happened. The first substitution will occur in the developing world, where a good chunk of oil is used for heating. They'll just switch to coal once coal becomes cheaper.

Now, that has bad consequences for the earth (CO2 release) and the people living in the developing world (coal has more direct pollutants). But no, we will not end up in some Mad Max dystopian future. The worst that will happen is that the standard-of-living will stagnate for a little while.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 23, 2006 1:55:19 PM

Boy, Salon was in standard form with the hysterical article that you linked. Many of their articles take on that same "chicken little" feeling. I think that many, including you, forgive them the tabloid trashy feel because they promote much of your pet projects, but I don't. Trashy is trashy.
They are not a blog nor a real news outlet. They are simply a propaganda machine for the willing.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 23, 2006 2:35:01 PM

"Suffice to say, coal can power basically everything we use, and it's unimaginably plentiful."

That is horribly misleading. Most sources I've read say US has enough Coal for 250-300 years AT CURRENT CONSUMPTION. At current Oil and Nat Gas price, utilities will shift new production to coal (coal price will begin rising due to supply and transportation issues--this is already happening). All of a sudden coal use is growing and that 250-300 years looks more like 125 years (or less) because use is growing say 5% a year. As oil prices rise to $100-200 bbl people will take natural gas and oil generators offline and substitute more coal power. (I did not even know folks were thinking about using liquid coal fuels for transport.) Now the 125yrs looks like maybe 50 yrs as Coal use rises another 5% a year from powering 50% of our (electrical) energy to 80% usage or more as coal is substituted for oil in vehicles.
There is also the fact that China and India are growning and demanding more energy than they did 25-30 years ago during the last crisis (when about 0.5-1 billion people used most of the energy (US+Europe). This is what makes this oil crisis different...another 2+Billion people want in.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 23, 2006 2:38:14 PM

I've heard numbers similar to those Daniel quotes for coal (50 years), esp. once high-energy sectors like transportation, agriculture (fertilizer), manufacturing (everything plastic around you comes from oil-- think about that one) and the military hop on that wagon.

Nuclear? About 40-60 years of uranium at estimated consumption rates. Proposed thorium reactors could give us a century, but no large-scale working thorium reactors have been built yet (India is working this problem, as they have access to large thorium deposits).

Peak Oil is neither myth nor panic. It's just a polite reminder from people in a position to know that there's the edge of a cliff approaching, and that we have a few decades to change direction.

We could, as a nation, at least halve our energy usage with technologies we have available NOW. That step alone would buy us time to find other energy sources, and to find new technologies that meet our modern needs with lesser energy cost.

Posted by: the dreaming ape | Mar 23, 2006 2:52:21 PM

Cross-posting my comment from your cross-posted post from Tapped...

You misrepresent Quiggin's post. His point, however buried, is that given the vast amount of damage carbon-based fuels do to the environment, it's a very bad thing that they're so plentiful (coal and natural gas included) because this allows us to switch from a declining resource like oil to a more readily-available, more destructive resource like coal.

I'd expect Mr. Yglesias to follow up on this as he has in the past (but his recent trip to Spain may preclude this), but the point is that those who talk about the dangers of consuming fossil fuels spend far too much time doing so within the context of finite resources and not nearly enough time talking about air pollution and climate change. This generally terrifying post by Brad Plumer is a useful corrective to this sort of view: in the area of climate change alone we'll be facing a crisis of genuinely apocalyptic proportions before we run out of oil, much less coal.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Mar 23, 2006 3:07:59 PM

Maybe I'm just a child of the 80s, but I personally prefer solar-power paneling as the solution to everything.

And isn't it possible that the exponential rate of oil consumption is linked to the unprecedented human population on earth?

Posted by: len | Mar 23, 2006 3:18:17 PM

Maybe I'm just a child of the 80s, but I personally prefer solar-power paneling as the solution to everything.

According to Brad Plumer - who I'm really pimping for today, apparently - it very well could be.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Mar 23, 2006 3:40:04 PM

Coal is unimaginably plentiful -- powering us, even in large part, for 150 years is far beyond the amount of time needed to render hydrogen and cellulosic technologies viable. The question of peak oil is the question of bridge fuels: will we have enough bridge fuel to take us from fossils to renewables. The point of the coal boosterism is that, given current technological trends, we're almost certain to cover that gap. And Iron: John worries about the CO2 of coal, which I address. If you just burn the stuff, you're in bad shape. If you use sequestration processes, which are fully viable elements of the gasification process, you're in pretty good shape.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 23, 2006 3:47:48 PM

Nukes are ~50 years at a) current ore prices feeding b) current once-through reactors. Change a) up and proven and probable reserves increase as lower-grade ores become economic. More to the point, change b) from once-through to breeders and consumption drops by a factor not of two but by something like fifty. There is a reason nobody outside those groups wedded to once-through reactors or to ceasing nuclear power generation worries about uranium reserves: it's not an issue. Hell, if I remember right, there's uranium in seawater, just in such low concentrations that it's essentially unrecoverable despite its huge total volume.

Now, a) is bad because uranium price spikes mean we have hit the fuel-price-spike domain ("stagnate for a little while" describes a normal business cycle), and b) is bad because breeders are a proliferation risk. Still, in an ideal world nukes are, in fact, an answer.

Alas, the world is anything but ideal, but there are enough problems with nukes to criticize them on a factual rather than fantasist basis.

Posted by: wcw | Mar 23, 2006 3:51:55 PM

I only skimmed the NRDC article, but it seemed to downplay some of the downsides of sequestration. For example, if you start putting massive amounts of CO2 in to aquifers, the acidity of the water will go up and potentially start dissolving the rock that contains it. As you point out, there is a lot of coal and if peak oil is really here now, there is no question we will use it, so it's definitely worth trying this to minimize the environmental impact, but I don't think it should be taken as a given that it will work.

"Nuclear? About 40-60 years of uranium at estimated consumption rates."

This could be extended a lot by reprocessing spent fuel, which would also reduce waste. We don't do it for weapons proliferation reasons, though.


Posted by: MattT | Mar 23, 2006 4:19:01 PM

"...at the price of very ugly price behavior as the world adjusted."

Residential real estate values depend on reasonably cheap oil. The value of the dollar and much of the East-Asian economies currently depend on US real-estate values. All bets are off in case of depression. Economists are only worth listening to when behavior is easily predictable.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 23, 2006 4:32:09 PM

If you use sequestration processes, which are fully viable elements of the gasification process, you're in pretty good shape.

There are serious problems with carbon sequestration (some of which Brad touches on - surprise! it really is a very good post). Forest carbon sinks cause increased soil acidity and nutrient and water depletion, and large-scale ocean carbon sinks of the kind we'll need to supplement a coal-powered century will inevitably produce huge reservoirs of liquid CO2 and carbonic acid at the bottom of the ocean, with possible effects on the biosphere we can only guess at.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Mar 23, 2006 4:44:34 PM

Just a quick nit to pick: switching to a 'hydrogen based economy' right now (if it were possible) would not slow our oil and coal consumption!

The hydrogen economy is the idea that we can use hydrogen (through the use of fuel cells) to store energy. We can't just pull hydrogen out of the atmosphere. There are two major sources of hydrogen: reverse hydrolosis and methane stripping. One depends on the quickly vanishing oil and natural gas reserves (methane stripping) and one takes more energy to produce than it creates in the end (reverse hydrolosis). What hydrogen allows you to do is cheaply transport power from one place to another. That is all. You still need to generate energy somehow (tapping fossil fuel reserves, hydro power, solar power, etc). You can't use it to make up for dwindling oil reserves or sky-rocketing coal prices. It doesn't work like that.

Posted by: NoVA liberal | Mar 23, 2006 4:56:05 PM

Coal is dirty, it contains sulfur, mercury, and burning it produces particles. Since the late 1970s the US has tried to make "clean coal", with little or no success. Cleaning up coal takes energy. At some point the energy required to dig up or strip mine coal, clean it up, ship through pipelines the CO2 emmissions, etc, takes almost as much energy as the coal produces (Energy released over Energy input.) Getting the coal out of the ground is dangerous if we use miners, or environmentally disasterous if we strip mine.

People are always taking about sequestering the CO2 from the coal, and send it to the oil fields to help recovery of oil. Unfortunately the oil fields are usually not located near the coal fields, so the infrastructure to pipe the CO2 gas is not currently in place, and the amount that could be used would not be sufficient. In addition, turning coal into liquid fuel would also result in additional CO2 emissions when the car, truck, or airplane uses it.

We will probably be using coal in the future for some energy needs, but it isn't a win-win situation. A better plan is to use wind power, nuclear power, and solar power to produce electricity and develop an electric train system.

By the way if you want to learn about this subject from some experts go to www.theoildrum.com and search for coal.

Posted by: Judy | Mar 23, 2006 5:21:46 PM

Crossposting my comment from your crosspost at tapped:

===============================
Other commentators have made the point about coal as a really horrible alternative. I'll point out one other problem - water. Mining and processing coal requires lots of water. Mining and processing coal pollutes lots of water. For various reasons of which global warming is only one, we are going to have to push very hard to get enough fresh water anyway.


In terms of sources:

1) Efficiency (not conservation though if all else fails we can do that too). If we spend a buck, put in some regulations and do some public spending, we squeeze a lot more GDP out a BTU of energy than we do at present.

2) Low temp solar for space and hot water heating and air conditioning. Evacuated tube collectors let us do this now in most climates (OK - not Alaska but in rainy and cloudy areas as well as sunny).

3) Sustainable biomass (not cutting down the rain forest to plant palm trees). Among the possibilities - waste straw and stover; only half the straw and stover produced when growing grain may safely be returned to the soil. The rest could be used for energy or fiber. In the latter case it replace wood saving rather than producing energy. We also have reserve land that could be switched to energy farms that build rather than damage soil. There are other possibilities too.

4)Wind energy. Even without storage this is a mature technology for providing between 20% and 25% of a grid. Add a few hours of flow battery storage and it becomes semi-dispatchable, safely able to provide up to 50% of a grid.

5) Solar thermal energy. More expensive than wind, it has the advantage that heat may be stored less expensively than electricity. With thermal storage, solar thermal plants could be made fully dispatchable - suitable for both base and load following.

6) Existing hydro, and existing and additional low cost geothermal. Not a big percent between the two of them, but inexpensive and full dispatchable.


Efficiency is less expensive than any source. while some of the sources mentioned are less expensive than fossil fuels most of them are not, so on average they are much more expensive than fossil fuels. The combination of less expensive efficiency and more expensive renewables could replace fossil fuels at around the same price we now pay.

The obstacle is not technology or even cost but politics. A push for coal by the centrist part of the blogsphere certainly does not help in this matter.

Posted by: Gar Lipow | Mar 23, 2006 8:14:48 PM

Let's not forget about fusion...a test plant is being built by seven or so countries, eh, well, they're still fighting over whose country it goes in, but its concievable that the technology would mature within 50 years and probably a lot sooner if the oil-stained president would throw more money at it. That's when we have a 400 year supply of energy(fusion at this point is only constrained by the supply of lithium on Earth).

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Mar 23, 2006 9:29:34 PM

The thesis in your post is that energy is available albeit more expensive.

Isn't cost the issue though? You mention the "higher cost of energy" as a throwaway issue. No biggie.

The question I see peak-oilers asking is, at what pace will the ramp up of energy prices occur? If it's a gradual ramp and gradual change in technology, no problemo. What if, for a whole variety of reasons, the change occurs in a crisis? A steep ramp up in pricing would be pretty devastating. As has been already mentioned, much of our consumerism is based on cheap oil (emphasis on cheap). Look what happens when gasoline goes up $.50 for a few weeks? Imagine it going up $4.00 over a month?

The end of civilization? Nah. And I haven't seen that expounded .... except by Bush multi-billionaire buddy Richard Rainwater in Wolcott's piece today.

Just take a look of the impact of 911 on the American body politics ... and the world.

You're too young, but I remember the first oil shock in the 70's.

Posted by: greyhair | Mar 23, 2006 10:07:51 PM

I understand the eschatology aspect of this: Kunstler is making a living beating that drum.

But I agree, there is a middle ground between the "the sky is falling" hysterics and the "technology will save us" optimists. People have a lot invested in cheap oil, from their cars and spacious houses, to their food (fertilizers, transportation), to stuff like plastics. A lot of this is covered in the thread following Quiggin's post.

I remember the oil shocks as well. I remember gas lines and rationing, none of which we are seeing even with a war in the world's oil-producing region. I'd love to be optimistic and think we'll find a solution but I suspect we'll see some kind of deep structural change in what passes for civilization before we get there.

Posted by: paul | Mar 24, 2006 7:47:19 PM

Hell, if I remember right, there's uranium in seawater, just in such low concentrations that it's essentially unrecoverable despite its huge total volume.

No, it appears it can be recovered, if the price is high enough, using passive adsorbant materials suspended in ocean currents. The cost breakpoint is, in my opinion, probably below the price at which reprocessing and/or breeder reactors would become competitive. Additionally, contrary to some environmentalist writings, the energy balance for extracting U from seawater appears to be quite favorable (as you'd expect if the economics were acceptable.)

Posted by: Paul Dietz | Apr 20, 2007 5:02:15 PM

The Rolling Stones cancel a gig in Hawaii and postpone other tour dates as Mick Jagger suffers throat troubles.

Posted by: Jadon Hershberger | Jun 21, 2007 3:26:41 AM

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Posted by: peterwei | Oct 22, 2007 12:52:54 AM

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