Not a Drop of Coal to Spare

With the Coal-to-Liquids conference kicking off today in Washington, D.C., I think it's worth adding another point to my previous argument against the notion of converting coal into liquified transportation fuel to offset petroleum.

According to the latest U.S. Department of Energy calculations, if the industry were allowed to grow in line with projections of U.S. coal reservers, liquid coal would consume 58 million of coal per year by 2015.  This would require the U.S. to actually import coal for domestic energy use. 

How is this possible given industry's claim that America is the "Saudi Arabia of coal?"  First of all, the 250 years of supply touted by industry is based on a government report written more than 35 years ago; more recent research on our country's coal reserves points to a drastically shorter time span.

According to a National Academy of Sciences report  in 2007, "it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years."

The report concludes that after factoring in rising coal production rates, financing costs, coal quality, transportation costs, and other environmental and economic considerations, there is probably only sufficient economic reserves of coal -- the portion that can be mined, processed, and marketed at a profit -- left to meet the nation's energy needs for the next 100 years at current consumption rates. 

While 100 years of supply might still sound like a pretty long time, at current prices that number could fall to just 75 years if we take into account the 0.8 percent rise per year in coal consumption predicted by the Energy Information Agency.  The figure falls to just 50 years supply under the Coal-to-Liquids Coalition's production goal of 300,000 barrels per day by 2015 (and a subsequent growth rate of 5% per year).  

If realistically we might have only 50 years worth of coal in America, why in the world would we want to waste what's left on a zany scheme to fill our gas tanks with liquid coal?

The above analysis was conducted by my colleague Andy Stevenson.  To learn more, check out NRDC's new fact sheet on this issue.