Let's Consider "Peak Coal"

I was flummoxed...flabbergasted...dumbstruck...by the headline of this recent opinion column in the Tucson Citizen"Consider coal as gift this holiday season."

Say what?

No surprise to see that the author is with the notorious coal front-group ACCCE.  The point of this blatant propaganda is not just to rebrand dirty lumps of coal as a great holiday stocking stuffer -- yes, that worked so well recently in cartoon form, didn't it? -- but also to sell coal as America's "special gift providing affordable and domestic energy."

The column attempts to downplay the role of renewable energy by noting that the world's insatiable and ever-increasing demand for power can only be supplied by coal.  The ACCCE flack promises that "Coal can serve our energy needs, lighting every twinkling light, iPhone, and Wii through the next 250 years of holiday celebrations."  He claims that because the U.S. has nearly 250 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves (purportedly making us the Saudi Arabia of coal), giving coal as gift says, "I believe in our country's energy independence."

Bah humbug!

Setting aside for a moment the problem with tying our energy future to a dirty power source of the past, I question whether there really is that much coal in our country.  I mean, we've all heard about Peak Oil, but what about Peak Coal?

New scientific calculations raise the possibility that world coal reserves are a fraction of previously unchallenged industry estimates.  We're talking hundreds of billions less coal than commonly thought.  As with oil, surveys of available coal typically underestimate the difficulty and expense of getting to these reserves.  In addition, the National Research Council's Committee on Coal Research, Technology, and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy issued a report last year, which found that recent assessments of coal reserves using updated methods "indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually mineable reserves."  And, ironically, increased mechanization has further decreased the world's recoverable reserves, because huge mining machines are not as efficient at digging out coal as human beings are.  (Case in point: mountaintop removal coal mining.)

So it seems as though the supply of coal may be smaller -- and dwindling faster -- than the industry would have us believe.  Regardless, no one can dispute that coal, like all fossil fuels, is a finite resource.  It's dirty days are numbered. 

It is good news for the climate that we can look forward to the day when we'll no longer need -- or be able to -- burn coal to produce our power.  But how oh how would we turn on the lights and charge all of our electronic gizmos?  That's easy:  We can -- and simply must -- invest in the development of clean, renewable energy sources like the sun and the wind.  The technology is affordable and available today, but a truly cleaner-powered tomorrow requires much, much more government funding to improve clean energy's cost-competitiveness with traditional, polluting fossil fuel power -- especially coal.

For the industry to tell us otherwise is just their desperate attempt to prolong our addiction to dirty energy using "smoke" and mirrors.