“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

is a statement of fact that neatly ties in with Thatcher’s funeral, the miner’s strike of 1985 and history in the making.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” is said by Al Bartlett and I was recently reminded of his lecture [available in full on his website] by fellow blogger Pedantry on his Wibble blog. The lecture seems to be recorded over a decade ago but Al is still doing live presentations so it would be interesting to see how it has changed in the light of recent human history. The 1 hour lecture is broken up into 10 minute parts so if you have any attention deficiency I would recommend this one.

It is of interest to me because it deals with coal. Specifically he deals with US coal but it can be extended to world coal consumption. Of course this is of great interest because if we burn all the reserves of coal rather than leave it in the ground then we will push Global Warming beyond the ‘safe’ 2c into 4 or 5 or 6c. How safe a 2c warmer planet will be is a matter of conjecture given that just 0.8c we have now is…well.. interesting to say the least and it will be decades before the current heat escapes from the oceans into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels have been the fuel of ALL growth over the last 200 years:- population, rising standards of living, healthcare, agricultural productivity- you name it and fossil fuels have fuelled it and that includes things like debt as well as the larger economy. My guess, and I come with no special expertise beyond reading what different experts have to say, is that we hit the oil peak in 2005/6 and since it has been a plateaux with a downward tendency reflecting the global economy.

In a world that didn’t need to deal with climate change [or choose to ignore it] there is the option to return to coal as a replacement for oil, after all, there is 200 years of coal reserves and surely the  technology is there to make coal into petrol as the South Africans did during apartheid.

One of the first problems in investigating the state of coal [or peak oil] is the complete lack of information. Government agencies and energy analysts may write reports on reserves of the most important founding asset of our civilisation but the quality of the data they draw on is frankly appalling. Saudi Arabia is secretive about how much oil it has in reserves as are other OPEC countries, whereas the top 200 private oil companies are looking to build confidence in investors to sustain its $1.5 trillion debt whilst it spends more for diminishing returns on investment. Countries and business lie.  China has huge reserves of coal and consumes half of all the coal mined in the World but Chinese coal estimates haven’t changed in 20 years despite billions of tonnes being extracted.

China may have enough coal reserves to plunge the World into a 4c nightmare warming, or it might have far less- we don’t know. Given that fossil fuels are the very foundations of modern human civilisation I find it extraordinary that governments  at Global level don’t make it a priority to find out how much there is and how likely we are going to turn AGW into CAGW.

One thing the few studies do agree on is the lack of information concerning world coal reserves but as a primer there are few things that are worth knowing about coal.

Resources and Reserves-

All fossil fuels are spoken of in terms of resources and reserves – resource is all the estimated barrels or tons or cubic feet [of gas] and reserves are what can be considered to be used. When it comes to resource and reserves the reality is that less than half of the resource is recovered. Resources of coal will include seams that only an inches thick, or very deep or inconsistent so even ‘proven’ reserves may stay in the ground.

Coal is not coal

Coal is quite a general term and there several distinct types ranging from lignite to anthracite and in the top end of quality there is graphite  and jet. In energy terms lignite has the third of the energy equivalent of oil and ‘hard’ coal has 2/3rd the energy oil weight for weight, but even this is a generalisation. Coal may be very wet and require drying out, it may be high in sulphur causing acid rain or high in mineral content which is how much ash is left or full of ‘wet gas’ : methane, making mining problematic.

We always exploit the best first

It is that simple- the low hanging fruits are picked first, and we tend to select the ripest- insect free ones first. The best also mean the cheapest with the best return. The undeniable fact is that tarsands, tight oil, deepwater and Arctic drilling are the most expensive oil fields out there and is what scrapping the oil barrel looks like: proof that Peak Oil has happened. In the US the same can be said for coal despite increasing production energy output of the coal mined peaked in 2004. A billion tons of coal now is not the same as a billion tons a decade ago- the industry is forced to mine more to get the same energy back.

The ideal coal mine would have seams 2 metres thick and few geological faults, in reality coal seams can be an inch thick and interrupted by geological faults as well as be prone to flooding and plenty of other issues to detailed to mention, the Miners Strike and the battle with the Thatcher Government was not supposedly about Britain running out of coal but the economics.

The US has the World’s largest reserves of coal  and thankfully has an independent scientific community, the US Geological Survey of the most important coal fields in Wyoming that produce 37% of US coal production reported that the original reserve of 200 billion tons had been reduced to 77 billion by 2006 of which only 10 billion tonnes could ever be recovered.  At current rate of extraction that would mean the field would be exhausted by 2026 and that certainly requires no increase in consumption because as Al Bartlett makes clear modest growth has an exponential effect.

In the US during the 70s [according to al Bartlett’s lecture] there was 500 years of American coal ‘at current rates of production’ but as his graph points out just 3% growth [the average growth in coal extraction between 1970-90] each year [and it may be pointed out that China has exceeded 10% growth in recent decades] American reserves of coal run out in 70 years making the last ton of US coal to be burnt will be in the 2040s. A higher 7% growth rate which has been seen in the past would mean coal mining would come to an end in 40 years [from 1970s] however growth has been restrained in the US coal sector but the reductions in reserve estimates means that 2025 or so is about right. Coal has already peaked in the World’s  largest reserves perhaps a decade ago and the decline, due to the nature and rate of extraction is a cliff not a curve. Unlike oil wells which deplete slowly because of physical constraints as pressure drops or in the case of Saudi the sea water pumped in to squeeze out the last of the oil makes up a greater percentage of the oil/water that is extracted, coal on the other hand can be in full production one year and simply run out the next.

Britain has demonstrated a number of firsts- it was the birth place of the Industrial Revolution, the cradle, if you like of our modern consumer world where a number of factors came together and humanity was able grow beyond the limits set by nature. And initially that paradigm shift was driven by coal. One of the many turning points occurred just a half hour drive from where I live: Iron Bridge was where Abraham Derby started to commercially use coke rather than charcoal to make iron, turning coal into coke had been known for years but he exploited it to make far more iron than anyone before him. Coal was king reaching a peak around the First World War at 300 million tons per year.

Britain also has had gas and oil and just as coal needed to be imported, the junction between our a declining coal and the potential of North Sea Oil and Gas coming on line was the 1970s, a period of domestic strife and recession, marked by the birth of punk in 1976. By the 1980s oil and gas were being exported and it was only in 2005 that Britain was forced to import oil and gas again, there is still some left but the monies from the exports has dried up forever. The peaks and troughs in fossil fuels is reflected in the politics as both Thatcher and Blair benefited from such wealth. This history of fossil wealth failing to enter into the mythology that surrounds Thatcher’s demise.  Now Britain is experiencing its own post- peak fossil fuel decline.

'UK Balance' graph from the APPGOPO presentation, November 2009

British coal is perhaps an insight into how global coal supplies will pan out.

As a kid I remember being told we had 400 or 200 years of coal but the real figures have turned out to be something different.

The proved recoverable coal reserves of the United Kingdom were reported at 45 billion tons with estimated additional resources of 145 billion tons in 1980.

In the following years the “proved” recoverable reserves were downgraded several times: to 9 billion tons in 1987, to 8.6 billion tons in 1990, to 3.3 billion tons in 1992, to 2 billion tons in 1995, to 1 billion tons in 1998, and finally to 0.22 billion tons in the latest report in 2004.

Between  1980 and 2004 1.8 billion [metric] tons [2 billion US short tons] were mined yet the reserves shrank from 190 billion tons to 0.22 billion.

Current UK consumption is 64 million tonnes – China used 3.7 billion tonnes in 2012 [figures vary!]

If one were to approach the UK coal reserves with caution it would be evident that deep mines are more expensive than open cast mining, and that we have a higher paid workforce than China or Poland and our geology is more problematic. This is true but coal has quadrupled in price in a decade and the mines that were not closed down by the Tories  and subsequent privatisation have been profitable- they simply ran out of coal or hit geological problems. Thatcher and Scargill were both wrong:  Arthur Scargill claimed that job losses were not just those of the miners effected but their sons, British coal mining would have been profitable as prices soared but there was never long term future. It was an ideological clash  but the tragedy was the oil wealth was not spent to provide a transition for the communities affected.

There is certainly huge resources of coal in the world whether in Alaska or Siberia or Mongolia but these are distant locations from any market and cannot be pumped like oil but instead needs a huge workforce, infrastructure and distribution network which currently would be run on oil unless the return to Victorian methods. Likewise there are possibly huge reserves in Montana USA that could make up for the steep declines that may hit Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Montana boosts it has twice the reserves of Wyoming but produces only a tenth of output so with global demand for coal being at an all time high why is the coal staying in the ground? One reason, perhaps, is that most of it is under ranchers fields who see no profit in seeing their land strip mined and the other is one of geography- it simply is too far way from major cities and the power plants that feed them. The same could be said of Russia’s huge resource under Siberian forests or Alaska coal under frozen tundra.

China and coal is the most interesting of all- will they cook us with their 10 coal power station being built every week – or what  ever- or is something else going on?

Due to the rapid growth in extraction China’s coal reserves – the third largest in the World- the date of depletion is moving rapidly to the near future. Quite when is a mystery but if the Wyoming reserves, those of the UK, Germany and Poland are any kind of clue then it is likely that estimates for Chinese Coal will range from half as much to just 10% of the assumed amount.

China is fully aware that their current rate of exponential growth is not sustainable and under their 5 year plan [2010-2015] they are looking to cap extraction at around 3 to 4 billion tons. Based on their 1990 reserve figures this would give 40 years of consumption at zero growth with growth in electricity demand being taken up with nuclear/wind/solar and possible shale gas. [Even conservative estimates reckon on peak production occurring in 2020 followed by a sharp decline].  If they have the reserves they say they have then we have to worry about their CO2 emission, if they don’t have the reserves we face a transition from fossil fuels to renewables which will be bumpy and possibly unachievable.

If Chinese coal is 10% or 50% of the estimate reserves we should know within the next 5 to 20 years. whatever the answer to this mystery the phrase ‘stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea’ comes to mind.

Links– and the most comprehensive report on the subject.

7 thoughts on ““The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

  1. I was talking to a few of my former hydrogeological colleagues last night, and the subject of conversation turned to coal mining. I was surprised to hear that Scottish Coal has gone into administration. When I asked why, I was told that the price of coal has gone down over recent years. In a resource-constrained World in which one country (China) is responsible for 50% of global consumption this is very surprising. Presumably this is a consequence of a global preference for gas, but it does not explain the decision of the UK government last year to turn planning policy on its head and promote opencast coal mining once again.

    • “it does not explain the decision of the UK government last year to turn planning policy on its head and promote opencast coal mining once again”

      They did that? Well, there’s a simple explanation. They’re idiots.

    • I actually based my guess on some of the graphs in my previous post – initially it seemed logical that the 2008 credit crisis and subsequent flatline marked the peak but proof is in the eating- decline in spending power- actual exports rather than just oil production and government debt. But the agenda is clear- don’t tell the plebs.

      and it is no typo- I’m being willful

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