Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, November 19, 2010

From the science journal Nature: prepare for Peak Coal

Whatever their other differences, both eco-activists and mega-energy corporations have long agreed that the Earth's vast underground reserves of coal would fuel human industry for centuries into the future. But, according to an opinion piece in the world's leading scientific journal, Nature, those vast reserves may be depleting much more quickly than conventional opinion would have it.

The article, written by peak oil activists Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, argues that projections of virtually limitless coal reserves are based on extremely dubious, often antiquated survey data. The optimistic coal projections, according to the authors, also make implausible assumptions about future demand for coal around the world. And the projections also neglect the costs of coal-related infrastructure. The authors' conclusion: the world could face a peak in global coal production as soon as 2020.

The article is by subscription only, but here's the link

Heinberg and Fridley include an interesting little factoid in their piece. While coal production in the United States, "the Saudi Arabia of coal," continues to increase, the authors contend that actual U.S. energy output from coal peaked in 1998. This is because the production of high-quality, high-energy U.S. coal has started to decline; the increase in overall production since 1998 has been accomplished by increased output of low-energy, harder-to-reach deposits. The citations in the Nature article don't cite a source for this data (it's an essay, not a peer reviewed research article), but a 2007 article by Heinberg does.

Heinberg and Fridley concede all the usual academic caveats about uncertainty in data and methods, caution when forecasting, and so on. Their 2020 guess for the onset of peak coal is, they would acknowledge, just a guess. But they argue that the uncertainty in coal deposit data are reason for more concern, not less. Rosy production forecasts may be rooted in nothingness. It's plausible, Heinberg and Fridley suggest, that peak coal is coming in our lifetime, sooner rather than later, instead of centuries from now.

If that's true, then the energy crunch facing industrial society will be even greater than peak oil activists have imagined. Oil and coal will begin to run short at the same time, thereby further taxing already inadequate alternative energy sources. The resulting economic shock waves will be even more cataclysmic for those of us alive in the age of decline.

The good news is that greenhouse gas emissions will fall drastically at some point, thanks to peak oil and coal -- although positive feedback loops from Arctic methane emissions, carbon sink destruction, and so on may well continue to drive global warming anyway.

The only unadulterated good news is that at some point, a collapsed economy will forever destroy the mind-numbing horror that is the holiday shopping season. No lump of coal in your stocking for you, little children of 2090. No electricity for your house, either. All the trees have been cut down, so no more firewood. No gasoline for the rotting ancient hulk of a car sitting in the driveway amidst the decaying slum of Exerbutopia. And the temperature outside your crumbling old McMansion in the American Midwest is 75 degrees Fahrenheit on the December birthday of our Lord and Savior. Who never came, but dispatched his followers, around about 2016 or so, to run the Dominion in the sweltering poverty ridden hell hole that is the former United States.

I do hope I'm wrong about all of that.

Back to killing Nazi zombies for JFK. I love my country. God help me, I do love it so.

Zombie killers of the Cold War: JFK and company in Call of Duty: Black Ops


  1. I recall commenting here some months ago that peak coal was some distance into the future. Having looked at your sources I will now say that crazy thing for which scientists are so often reviled: "Hey, new data! Hmmm, looks like was wrong. Oh well." I had no idea Chinese coal demand had spiked like that. Jeebus. And that's with the Three Gorges Dam, no less. Hungry fuckers.

  2. The fun just keeps on coming... I'm trying to think of some Godzilla metaphor having to do with China and coal. Not succeeding.

    Back to wage slavery now.