Peak Coal Argument Gets on a Short Timeline, With Your Investment

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- The arguing over peak coal could be resolved within 10 to 20 years, since that's about how much recoverable coal reserves the United States has, according to an estimate in a report by Clean Energy Action.

Of course, that's a dramatic contrast with estimates by the Energy Information Administration, which says there are enough recoverable coal reserves to keep the country powered for the next two centuries.

The organization says the U.S. hit "peak coal" in 2008, and that coal production and profits have been on a relative downslide since.

"The fundamental fact is that most of the coal in the U.S. is buried too deeply to be accessed easily and we are rapidly approaching the end of accessible U.S. coal deposits that can be mined profitably," said Dr. Zane Selvans, geologist and assistant director of research at the organization, in a press release.

The idea is nothing new. In early 2009, the environmental news website Grist reported on a possible 10- to 20-year timeline for recoverable coal reserves as based on reports by the U.S. Geological Survey and National Research Council.

The council's Committee on Coal Research, Technology and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy reported in 2007 that traditional projections of coal reserves were based on methods that hadn't been reviewed or revised since 1974. For those few areas that had been evaluated using updated methods, a much smaller fraction of recoverable coal was found than was originally estimated. In particular, the USGS found that only 6% of coal resources in Gillette, Wyo. -- the country's most productive coalfield -- was economically recoverable.

The council report ended on an optimistic note and did not downgrade projected estimates for future coal production. But it could affirm only that there is enough recoverable coal to meet demands until 2030 and said "it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply for the next 250 years."

Likewise, CEA asserted in its recent report that the position that there are 200 billion tons of coal reserves do not consider updated economic factors affecting the ability to harvest most of those reserves. It referred to the recent financial strain affecting many U.S. coal companies, noting that it is "unclear whether they will be able to support the increased capital and labor costs associated with mining coal that is more difficult to access."

With consumer prices of coal-based electricity and heat rising at an average 6% to 10% a year -- or between two and three times faster than inflation -- and expected to double in the next decade, the CEA says coal is simply getting too expensive to maintain as our nation's main source of energy.

Additionally, the organization noted that production in the top 16 coal states have declined significantly in recent years, with heavyweights Wyoming and Montana dropping 14.2% and 18.1%, respectively. Coal production in Pennsylvania has dropped a whopping 80.2%, and Virginia by 61.4%, with Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Arizona production rates slashed at around or slightly under half.

The industry has been downsizing mining jobs and replacing workers with machinery. In 2009, Smithsonian magazine reported that the price of coal in the central Appalachian region had tripled since 2006, while demand skyrocketed. Yet while coal production has increased in West Virginia 140% in the past three decades, more than 40,000 coal mining jobs in the state have been eliminated.

Even while demand for coal is rising, several top U.S. coal companies have lost more than 80% of their stock value, with companies such as Patriot Coal filing bankruptcy, the CEA says.

With productivity falling steadily from 6.99 tons per employee per hour in 2000 to 5.19 tons per employee per hour last year, the report argues it may be time to make investments elsewhere for future energy needs.

"If coal can't be mined at a profit, not much of it will be mined," said Leslie Glustrom, director of research and policy of Clean Energy Action. "It is unclear how long the U.S. coal industry will produce large quantities of coal and at what price, but the current financial distress of U.S. coal mining companies could lead to significant changes in U.S. coal production in less than a decade."

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