Is coal the new oil? There are various grades of coal but a medium grade in North West Europe cost $29 a tonne in 1999, and today costs $149 a tonne. Most grades of coal have increased in price between three fold and four fold in the past nine years. Coal (if counted in terms of energy) is more plentiful than natural gas, oil or uranium. Fortunes will be made in coal, as humans seek more and more energy self gratification, and as their numbers multiply.
If you count coal that can be mined in reasonable quantities that on the best geological and engineering information indicates with reasonable certainty can be recovered under present economic and technical conditions (proved reserves) then assuming the present rate of coal consumption, we have enough to burn on this planet for the next 122 years.
Most of the coal (28.9%) is within the United States of America; The Russian Federation has “only” 19%, South Africa has nearly 4% and Australia, China and India have 9.2%, 13.9% and 7.1% respectively. These are the coal giants. No other nation gets close to these quantities of reserves.
From these figures you can see why throughout the world energy ministers lament for a “clean” version of coal that can be burned without creating the massive oversized carbon dioxide and sulphur emissions that coal burning inevitably brings.
Buying fuel from the United States is thought preferable to buying it from Saudi Arabia. Certainly if you live in the USA, it is better for you to by fuel from your own country, where supplies will not be used as a political weapon, but if you live outside the USA I do not know why it is thought that, say, Saudi Arabia may wish to use its control of oil for political purposes and the USA may not wish to do this. History seems to show that those that have great quantities of fuel become powerful by using that fuel politically and for their own benefit – the development of the British Empire shows this.
There will never be a way to combust coal without creating greenhouse gas emissions (at least not in this universe) so under the present energy regime that the world has adopted, it seems inevitable that the 122 years worth of coal that we have will be burned, expelling huge quantities of dirt, dust, sulphur and carbon dioxide in the future, probably not in the next 122 years, but somewhere in last than half that period.
There might be a way to combust coal and capture some of the carbon dioxide that the combustion process creates. This (yet to be perfected process) is called carbon sequestration; once you have captured the carbon dioxide the gas must be then stored safely, so that it cannot leak into the atmosphere. Various underground caves, caverns, former natural gas and oil wells have all been nominated for this task, but two things should be borne in mind:-
- Under the present state of knowledge capturing the coal’s carbon dioxide as it burns leads to a lower energy output; you have to burn more coal which might make the process a little pointless, as the true test is not how much carbon dioxide you capture, but how much carbon dioxide in relation to useful energy produced is captured.
- If you capture and store carbon dioxide, which then leaks back into the atmosphere (because of an underground tremor, poor storage design, human error of subterranean event) you will have created a worse outcome – burned more coal to produce energy and lost the store of carbon dioxide.
I cannot of course predict how long the coal will last with any accuracy but one thing is clear. The nations that have the coal deposits in vast quantities will either burn the coal as part of their need to be in control of their own energy (such as the United States) or will use more and more coal by building coal burning power stations in larger and larger quantities; this is happening in China and India and I think that it will also happen in South Africa, where they stopped building power stations and now will no doubt launch a new power station program around their coal deposits.
I suspect that the 122 years of coal proved to be in reserve will be used up in half that period – probably around 60 years.
What is hard to predict is what will happen in the United States, with its vast reserves of coal. There is already a large anti coal burning lobby there which is growing in force. The US Supreme Court has already declared carbon dioxide as a pollutant. This will reduce coal burning. I do not expect China, India or the Russian Federation to be similarly constrained in their burning of coal.
Filed under: carbon dioxide, carbon emissions, climate change, Coal, energy, global warming, natural gas, nuclear energy, oil, pollution Tagged: | carbon dioxide as a pollutant, carbon sequestration, China, coal prices, energy, foreign energy policy, India, probelsm with carbon sequestration, Saudi Arabia, USA coal