04/03/2007 05:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What If Coal is Running Out Too?

Virtually everyone involved in energy discussions takes for granted that there's plenty of coal waiting to be burnt. The typical claim is that the U.S. has "200 years" worth of domestic energy in its coal reserves.

That's why some people aren't as worried as they might be about the imminent peak in oil production. The notion is that we'll burn coal for electricity, liquefy it for transportation fuel, and be on our merry way. (And oh yeah, to shut the global warming crowd up, we'll sequester the carbon emissions.)

If you doubt just how much future energy supply is dependent on coal, watch this slideshow by peak oil expert Matt Simmons. All hope of satisfying the massive projected growth in global energy demand rests on coal.

But what if our core beliefs about coal are wrong? What if coal isn't as abundant as we thought? What if we're rapidly approaching peak coal?

That, apparently, is the conclusion of a forthcoming report from the Energy Watch Group in Germany. Putting aside the technical details, the report's blockbuster finding is that the world will hit peak coal energy around 2025. Check your calendar. Yup -- that's 18 years from now. Not very long. After we cross the peak, coal energy will get inexorably more and more expensive, until it costs more to get the coal than it pays to burn it.

If this turns out to be true, it completely changes the game. It will mean that all three primary fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) are heading for decline. No alternative source of energy, under any realistic scenario, can hope to compensate for this loss of energy.

Thus: humanity will have to adjust to a sharply energy constrained world. This might happen thoughtfully, with planning and foresight. Or it might happen through the law of the jungle, with resource wars and massive dislocations. But it will happen.

It also changes the climate change equation. Climate change activists have always proceeded as though we have a choice: move to renewables and efficiency, or screw up the climate by burning coal. But if coal is bumping up against a peak just like oil and natural gas, there is no choice. We're going to use less energy, like it or not. The only relevant discussion is about how we choose to get from here to there.

It will take a while for everyone to adjust to this new information, and I expect we'll be discussing it again.

In the meantime, Chris Nelder has a fairly accessible summary of the report; Oil Drum has a slightly more detailed and technical summary; but the best place to get a perspective on what this could mean is this piece from peak oil guru Richard Heinberg. I hesitate to attempt to summarize Heinberg's thoughts -- it really is worth reading the whole thing.

(Important note: this is all based on a preliminary version of the report. The results will need to be verified by further study and analysis. Data on coal reserves are notoriously spotty. Etc. Etc. So caveat lector.)