Mining the Truth on Coal Supplies

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"What if conventional wisdom is wrong?"

Coal mine in NE WyomingNo matter how bad coal is for the planet, conventional wisdom suggests the world's bountiful supply of the leading fuel for electricity will continue dominating the energy scene unless global action is taken on climate change.

But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?

A new study is shaking up the assumption that coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, will continue its inexorable rise. In fact, the authors predict world coal production may reach its peak as early as 2011, and then begin a permanent decline.

The study, led by Tad Patzek, chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas, predicts that, by mid-century, the world's coal mining will supply only half as much energy as today.

The idea of "peak coal" as soon as 2011 flies in the face of earlier estimates.

The World Coal Institute, an industry group including the largest international coal producers, says "the use of coal will rise 60% over the next 20 years," and that "coal will last for at least 119 years."

The IEA recently forecast coal consumption for electricity to grow more than 50% by 2035 unless greenhouse gas emissions policies are established.

However, the Patzek study paints a far different picture—and not because we'll use all the remaining coal in the ground. Rather, the world will finish off the coal that produces a large amount of energy per ton. What remains will be of lower quality and progressively harder to dig up.

The study's prediction for the time of the peak—actually a peak in energy produced by global coal production—may not be exactly right. "I'm not saying that on July 1, 2011, there will be a peak," Patzek said, adding: "We are near or at the peak right now," he said.

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