Coal, which many geologists and prominent energy analysts consider one of the most abundant fuels in the world, is running out, according to a recent "comment" in the British journal Nature. In the magazine, Richard Heinberg and David Fridley argue, "World energy policy is gripped by a fallacy—the idea that coal is destined to stay cheap for decades to come."

Heinberg and Fridley both work for the Post Carbon Institute of Santa Rosa, Calif., a neo-Malthusian group that also argues that the world is running out of oil and natural gas. Among other works, Heinberg wrote the 2007 book, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. Their work is quite contrarian, as the current wisdom is that coal and natural gas reserves are adequate for centuries of economic development. That, despite cries of oil shortages over the past decade or more, actual oil shortages have not materialized also undercuts the coal analysis.

The Nature article, "The End of Cheap Coal,"  cites "a spate of recent studies" that suggest that "available, useful coal may be less abundant than has been assumed—indeed that the peak of world coal production may be only years away. One pessimistic study published in 2010 concluded that global energy derived from coal could peak as early as 2011." On top of the dwindling resource, Heinberg and Fridley also argue that "global demand is growing rapidly, largely driven by China," and has been "surging at 3.8% per year" since 2000. China is the world’s largest coal producer and user. "Its influence on future coal prices should not be underestimated," argues the article.

Part of what drives Heinberg and Fridley’s coal pessimism-although the tone of their article and the attitude of the Post Carbon Institute is that running out of coal is a good thing-is the lack of solid geological data on worldwide coal reserves. The most common way to look at the abundance of coal is through "proven recoverable reserves," which is an economic estimate of what geologists believe is technically and economically feasible to recover. These estimates, the Nature article argues, tend "to shrink as geologists uncover restrictions-such as location, depth, seam thickness and quality-on the coal that can practically be extracted." As a result, Heinberg and Fridley argue, British coal reserve estimates have fallen from 900 years in the 19th century to 12 years today. Current Chinese estimates of reserves are 62 years, which Heinberg and Fridley regard as grossly optimistic.

A better way to evaluate reserves, the article suggests, is the method pioneered by M. King Hubbert, the founding father of peak oil, in the 1950s, using oil industry data to plot supply curves. Hubbert predicted a peak in U.S. oil production in the early 1970s. "It did," they assert.

Using the Hubbert techniques, Chinese academics in 2007 calculated that the nation’s coal production "will peak and begin to decline long before the simple 62-years estimate, perhaps as early as 2025." China can’t turn away from coal, Heinberg and Fridley say. Coal provides 80% of the nation’s electricity, from about half of the country’s coal reserves. Another 16% of the Chinese coal production supplies coke for the iron and steel industry, the largest in the world.

Heinberg and Fridley argue that U.S. reserve estimates (which claim that the U.S. is the "Saudi Arabia of coal") rely on "decades-old coal surveys." They argue, "This figure is not reliable enough for strategic energy planning," and they call on the U.S. Geological Survey to "urgently complete a new national coal survey. And it is essential for the security of energy supplies globally that Chinese domestic coal production and the timing of its likely decline is better understood."

The Nature article predicts that "world energy supplies" will be unable to meet projected demand "beyond 2020." That means that "new limits on energy consumption will be essential in all sectors of society—including agriculture, transportation and manufacturing—and will be imposed by energy prices and shortages if they are not achieved through planning and policy."

Predictably, the analysts argue for future "maximum possible investments in energy efficiency and renewable-energy infrastructure. Even then the world will have to accept a slowdown in economic growth."

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.