December 19, 2008
David Rutledge Sees Far Less Coal Remaining

Projections of future coal burning maybe excessively optimistic or pessimistic (depending on your point of view) because the amount recoverable from the ground might be far less than governments project.

David Rutledge, a professor of engineering at Caltech, estimates economically recoverable coal reserves at 400 billion tons worldwide. By comparison, governments claim 850 billion to 998 billion tons of recoverable coal.

Rutledge presented this analysis at the annual meeting of the American Geological Union . He has also made this argument previously. Sounds like he's done more number crunching since the previous report.

If Rutledge is right then people fighting global warming are fighting the wrong battle. CO2 emissions are going to peak because of geological limitations.

The figure is substantially lower than the ones used in assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to gauge possible future emissions scenarios.

"This is a radically different number from what is conventionally assumed," said Professor David Rutledge from the California Institute of Technology, who led the analysis.

"The IPCC assumes that about five times as much coal is available for burning."

I am more certain about the coming of Peak Oil than I am about Peak Coal. Oil fields appear to have attracted a lot more study.

Rutledge says governments over-predict coal reserves.

"The record of geological estimates made by governments for their fossil fuel estimates is really horrible," Rutledge said during a press conference at the American Geological Union annual meeting. "And the estimates tend to be quite high. They over-predict future coal production."

More specifically, Rutledge says that big surveys of natural resources underestimate the difficulty and expense of getting to the coal reserves of the world. And that's assuming that the countries have at least tried to offer a real estimate to the international community. China, for example, has only submitted two estimates of its coal reserves to the World Energy Council — and they were wildly different.

We need lots more nuclear reactors and wind turbines. We also need better batteries for electric cars and genetic engineering of microorganisms for practical biomass energy.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 December 19 10:50 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels

Phil said at December 20, 2008 5:04 AM:

Peak oil

Peak coal

Peak uranium

Peak lithium

Peak whatever else our totally unsustainable lifestyle takes

Can't wait for human stupidity to peak

th said at December 20, 2008 5:46 AM:

The leftie loon elect has said he's going to bankrupt the coal industry, tell your buddies they don't have to spend any more time making this stuff up. After the fall of the soviet union, western oil companies went into the caspian sea and did in 10 years what the russians couldn't do in 100, I doubt the still primitive remnants of communism have any idea what they got.

Paul F. Dietz said at December 20, 2008 8:21 AM:

The wild card for coal utilization, as I see it, is in situ gasification. This technology has been being worked on for decades, in what was the Soviet block in particular. It would enable otherwise inaccessible coal -- such as coal at great depth, or on continental shelves -- to be exploited.

K said at December 20, 2008 10:53 AM:

Paul: I agree with your premise. But my brother-in-law, a chemical engineer, was leading a project of in situ gasification in 1948 - yes 1948 - for Union Carbide.

He was shifted to strip mining after a couple of years. At the time large scale strip mining coal was rather new, but at least it obviously could work.

You are right, in situ has been worked on for decades. And as far as I know it has never proved commercially viable. Possibly because natural gas and oil was so abundant and cheap.

Still, companies keep exploring shale oil and coal in-situ (is there a better term), and they must be getting closer to a payoff. I'll never see it, you may.

wcw said at December 20, 2008 10:59 AM:

th, as an actual lefty loon, I have to correct you. Obama is an establishmentarian, and has very little in common with me. He and his party are center-right, substantially closer to Eisenhower than to any lefty loon I know. Your far-right party lost -- big -- to the center-right party.

Get over it.

On-topic, even if there are only 400B tons left, that's too much to go into the atmosphere. I am all for nukes, nukes, nukes. Wind is not my favorite, but tides could be, depending on implementation.

Randall Parker said at December 20, 2008 2:42 PM:


Remember that coal is an international industry. Even if Obama cuts coal consumption in the US that'll just lead to more coal exports. So Obama will inadvertently cut the US trade deficit.


I would like to ban further construction of coal plants. Doing that will cause more nukes and wind farms to get built at a fairly small increment in cost. We'll get less particulates and mercury and other crap in the air and less mercury in fish. Sounds like a good deal to me.

I am less concerned about global warming than about depleting fossil fuels. Shifting away from coal is easier than shifting away from oil because we have good substitutes for coal. We just need a long lead time to build up the substitutes.

A Former Coal Man said at December 20, 2008 5:45 PM:

First, global warming is not caused by CO2 emissions, and even if the globe is warming this is a good thing. Sheesh. Why anyone would think CO2 is causal when there is this giant yellow ball in the sky and water vapor the primary determiner of IR effects (on a ball of mostly water!) is beyond me.

Second. The coal guy is f'ing wrong. Why -- because known reserves are in the trillions of tons and ARE fully recoverable. He's just wrong.

Third. You don't need to gasify. You move the substandard coal to the power plant where you preprocess it so that you get oil, high-grade coal, and oodles of water to use in the algae farm to recover your CO2 and make even more oil via biofuel, with the algae leftover fed back into the powerplant as fuel.

Fourth. Peak oil freaks. Please note oil price.

Marcel F. Williams said at December 21, 2008 12:26 AM:

Coal is great! It puts a lot more toxic mercury into our food, kills hundreds of thousands of people annually, produces 100 times more radioactive waste than nuclear power plants and more back ground radiation, its melting our ice caps so we can put the east coast of the US underwater and eventually the entire state of Florida.

What's not to love about 'Clean Coal'!

Nick G said at December 22, 2008 11:56 AM:

Hubbert Linearization makes no sense for coal.

The best example: the Illinois coal basin, which has 150B+ tons of coal. It peaked some years ago not because of any kind of geological limitations, but because Powder River coal was lower sulfur, and therefore slightly cheaper to burn (when sulfur scrubbing was required). So, Illinois suffered from Peak Demand, not Peak Supply.

A similar thing is true of UK coal, complicated by the fact that Margaret Thatcher wanted to kill the powerful coal miner's union - she did do by killing coal, aided by the emergence of North Sea oil & gas.

I've had this conversation with David Rutledge, and he agreed that his analysis makes sense only in the context of Business as Usual - there's plenty of coal if there was a dire energy shortage due to, say, Peak Oil. Here's further discussion:

We're going to have to make a conscious decision to reduce coal consumption: we can't rely on geology to do it for us.

averros said at December 24, 2008 1:06 AM:

> Can't wait for human stupidity to peak.

Fat Chance.

In fact, all these "peak" predictions were made so many times since Malthus that no one in his right mind can believe them. The reason why somehow peak-everything never seems to be catastrophic is purely economical - when something becomes relavitely more scarce (and *all* material goods are scarce) the prices rise, forcing consumers to shift to alternatives (and creating incentives for producers to develop alternatives).

As for Malthus - he was a fool, obviously, for a very simple reason - his theory of population catastrophe relies on a hidden assumption that all individuals are the same. In fact, when there's competition for scarce resources, there's selection (doesn't have to be the literal dying from hunger, just not being able to produce offspring at population-neutral rate); the selection will favor those who are better at obtaining critical resources or those who learn how to substitute those resources, increasing efficiency of use of these resources.

Genetic evolution is slow, memetic evolution (especially when coupled with free market, as Eric Baum has shown) is blazingly fast. So there is no reason for pessimism whatsoever regarding human future. Unless the parasitic communitarian meme (aka "socialism") manages to kill everyone in a blaze of nuclear glory.

Randall Parker said at December 24, 2008 2:26 PM:

averros trots out the stand libertarian Panglossian view on resources:

In fact, all these "peak" predictions were made so many times since Malthus that no one in his right mind can believe them.

In 1956 Shell geologist King Hubbert predicted US peak oil in 1970. He was right. Am I not in my right mind because I believe his prediction was correct?

Norway and Britain peaked in oil production. Am I not in my right mind because I believe this? A lot of other countries have peaked in oil production. Do you deny this? Do you think Norwegian oil production is going to rise up and hit a new peak? Or will British production? Or will Mexican production rise up again and hit a new peak?

Facts are pesky things.

Malthus: Yes, some will survive and the die-off will exert selective pressure. This does not disprove Malthus's argument. The selective pressure is the very process he described of hitting resource limits.

That we will eventually develop tech that will allow us to get more energy from sunlight or nuclear fusion does not mean we won't hit up against energy constraints in the mean time.

th said at December 24, 2008 2:45 PM:

John Holdren, Obama's nominated Science "advisor" has been wrong on "peak" theories before but it hasn't diminished his standing with the lefty loon elect.
"Dr. Holdren, now a physicist at Harvard, was one of the experts in natural resources whom Paul Ehrlich enlisted in his famous bet against the economist Julian Simon during the “energy crisis” of the 1980s. Dr. Simon, who disagreed with environmentalists’ predictions of a new “age of scarcity” of natural resources, offered to bet that any natural resource would be cheaper at any date in the future. Dr. Ehrlich accepted the challenge and asked Dr. Holdren, then the co-director of the graduate program in energy and
resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and another Berkeley professor, John Harte, for help in choosing which resources would become scarce.

In 1980 Dr. Holdren helped select five metals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten — and joined Dr. Ehrlich and Dr. Harte in betting $1,000 that those metals would be more expensive ten years later. They turned out to be wrong on all five metals, and had to pay up when the bet came due in 1990."
Full article here>

th said at December 24, 2008 4:39 PM:

A recap of the prices and world production from the USGS on the bet between environmentalist ehrlich and simon in 1998 adjusted prices from 1980 to 2006. Copper was the only one up, since the commodity collapse its joined the down group and 30 years later the environmentalist doomkopf is still wrong. Uri Geller still makes a living bending spoons and unfortunately, so do these clowns.
I would extrapolate these results into, so much for global warming "scientists".

Price change 1980 to 2006 and worldwide production,

tungsten: down 20%, up 77%
chrome: down 8% up 106%
copper: up 27% up 111%
nickel: down 33% up 64%
tin: down 73% up 22%

Nick G said at December 24, 2008 7:11 PM:

Randall, Averros wasn't disagreeing on Peak Oil, he was disagreeing on Peak Energy. I think I have to agree with him: we're likely to have a transitional problem, but we don't really have an energy shortage, just a industrial/infrastructural conversion problem. It's real, but not "peak resources", as some think over at The Oil Drum, for instance.

And, Malthus was indeed wrong. As a practical matter I think we're going to have a hard time juggling all of our resource crunches (especially energy), but I think we should be clear on what the theoretical problems are, and are not.

The most important refutation of Malthus is on the population side: world population as a whole has clearly stopped growing exponentially (or geometrically, if you like), due to the demographic transition (it's roughly arithmetic at the moment). This is a key point: in many ways, growth is generally self-limited, and follows a logistic (or sigmoid curve), generally referred to as an S-curve. For instance, US car sales growth peaked about 35 years ago, and the US has a clear over-supply of vehicles, due to increasing vehicle longevity.

In fact, in most of the world population growth is on a long-term negative path, due to fertility rates well below replacement, including Western Europe, Russia, China, and the US (excluding immigration). Japan and Italy are the poster children for this - both are starting to show absolute declines in population. This is detailed at the UN site below, where we see that the growth rate was as high as 2.19% back in 1963. The total population peak is currently expected to be at about 9 billion around 2075 and population is expected to drop after that.

Let's explore a couple of key concepts: the difference between arithmetic and exponential growth, and the difference between high fertility and "bottom line" growth.

Consider the following series of numbers: 10, 11, 12, 13, 14. There is growth of 7.7% at the end, but this is arithmetic growth: the change from number to number is constant, not growing with the base. Malthus assumed exponential growth for population, and arithmetic growth for agriculture. At the moment overall world population is increasing, at about 72M per year, IIRC. However, that number is stable at the moment, and very likely to decrease soon. What we see, then, is that exponential growth for population has ended.

Growth varies enormously by country - in Japan, for instance, absolute growth will be negative next year. Italy and Russia will follow soon after. These alone are sufficient to refute Malthus's general rule in a simple, clear fashion.

For many more countries, the fertility rate is below replacement. If every couple has less than about 2.1 children (the definition of the replacement fertility rate), the population is very young, and the death rate is low, there can be a lot of children and "bottom line" growth in the population, but in the long run the population will stabilize and decline, as every generation is smaller than the one before. So, if we clearly have fertility rates below replacement, we clearly have in the long run stable or declining population growth.

Now, are there still parts of the world growing pretty quickly? Sure, but they're in the minority. Just as importantly, the parts of the world that aren't growing clearly refute Malthus's idea that population always grows until it hits a resource limit - he couldn't conceive of voluntary birth control.

Do we still have huge, basic sustainability problems? Sure, but it's important to know that the broad, simple framework that Malthus proposed is just plain wrong.

This kind of logic also applies to energy. Like population, US car sales, and many other examples, energy markets (at least renewable ones, like those for wind and solar electricity - so no, I'm not talking about oil) will naturally mature and flatten out long before we reach theoretical limits.

For far too long we've been talking about a false dichotomy between "infinite exponential growth" and collapse. In fact, with a little luck, growth in resource consumption will gradually come to a stop, while humanity switches it's desire for improvement to what are generally known as "services": health, education, art, etc.

The above is from my blog. Here's a good comment to my blog entry by "relhager":

There are two relevant points: One, as Nick noted above, is that the UN predicts that the human population will never double again, and will start decreasing during this century. That’s critical.

The second is just as important: Malthus was simply wrong. Or at least half wrong. He was right about population growth (up until now, at least) but very wrong about food production. During the twentieth century, global population increased sixfold, and food production increased sevenfold, thanks to advances in genetics (the Green Revolution) and especially chemical fertilizers (see my recent book on the history of the subject, "The Alchemy of Air," as well as Vaclav Smil’s excellent "Enriching the Earth.").

Yes, we will have big issues handling the population high-water mark (+ another 4 billion or more) before we start going down in numbers, especially because of pollution. No, this does not answer questions about energy resources (making chemical fertilizer currently eats up about 1 percent of all the energy used on earth). But if we a reduced-meat, high-vegetable diet, we should be able to avoid the mass starvation predicted by Malthus — forever.

A further note about Hubbert: I think he was generally right about oil production, but his Linearization method doesn't seem to work anywhere else. It doesn't work for coal, as I discussed above, and, it failed for Hubbert in the 70's, when he predicted Natural Gas production would fall off a cliff in the 80's. Instead, it's continued at levels that are as high or higher.

Randall Parker said at December 24, 2008 8:00 PM:

Nick G,

We agree there's a transitional problem. Some of the best commentators on The Oil Drum see it that way too. They do not all expect collapse. The debate is really how big of an impact will the oil production decline have on economies and living standards.

Peak Oil versus Peak Energy: The problem is that other energy forms are not sufficiently substitutable for oil. The substitutes cost more (including decreased convenience - and time is money) or else we'd already be using them.

As for this claim:

in most of the world population growth is on a long-term negative path

Define "most". White people used to be 25% of the world's population. Now they are below 10% and dropping. Their fertility rate matters less as they become a smaller slicer of the total pie. Ditto Japanese.

The people who are having the most babies matter the most. A couple of years ago I saw a demographer on C-SPAN giving a talk at some Washington DC think tank and he claimed that in some countries with higher fertility rates the fertility decline had stopped and reversed. I would like to know if this is true. Are selective pressures going to cause fertility to rise? Are some countries going to stay so poor that they keep making lots of babies?

Malthus: We've got the tech (and so far the energy) we can use to pull more and more biomass over to our use rather than use by other species. So we are pushing other species to extinction rather than hitting the wall ourselves. But we'll still hit some limits. What are your views on Peak Phosphorus? I expect industrialization to drive a big increase in demand for meat and therefore for more grain crops, more land for grain crops, and more phosphorus and other fertilizer material.

Nick G said at December 24, 2008 11:08 PM:

"cost more (including decreased convenience - and time is money) or else we'd already be using them. "

Only a little. Don't forget, to competitive markets, fractions of a penny per KWH (or dimes per gallon of fuel) are supremely important, but in the overall scheme of things, they're unimportant.

Old coal and nuclear are very cheap, due to already amortized costs, and, in the case of coal, externalized pollution costs. Wind energy costs retail about $.14/KWH (including the costs of long-distance transmission, intermittency, local distribution and overhead), and that's only $.04 more than current average prices, and a penny or two more than new coal or nuclear. Japan and Europe have shown that strong economies are possible with rather higher power costs (around $.20/KWH).

Similarly, batteries are cheaper than liquid fuel when fuel rises above $2/gallon. By US historical standards that's a high price, but Europeans and Japanese would laugh at such a price. Another proof of affordability: a plug-in Prius with 20 mile range would cost the same or less than the average new US light vehicle, but reduce liquid fuel consumption by 75% over the average US light vehicle.

"Define "most"."

By "most" I mean greater than 50% of the world's population.

"White people used to be 25% of the world's population."

The Chinese and parts of India are also on a long-term negative path.

Keep in mind that 500 years ago, before the European growth spurt, "white people" were less than 10% of the population - so we're returning to to a more normal distribution of population. European grew, went through the demographic transition, and stabilized. The minority of the world this is still growing quickly is following just a little behind. This isn't a matter of speculation: you can see it in fertility rates and demographic structures, in places like India, Mexico, and South America. The only place we don't see it yet is in Africa, in parts of which they really are going through Malthusian cycles, and a minority of the M.E.

"Are selective pressures going to cause fertility to rise?"

We've debated this before. These selective pressures aren't so finely tuned, so intense that we'll see any significant change in less than 10 generations: that's 200 years, and social change will hit far faster than that.

"Are some countries going to stay so poor that they keep making lots of babies?"

It's correlated indirectly with poverty, and more directly with education of women. The rest of the world can do something about education of womenin Africa, and places like KSA will come around eventually.

"So we are pushing other species to extinction rather than hitting the wall ourselves."

Yes, which is a great tragedy. Of course, some of it is entirely needless, like the extinctions caused by Chinese medicine.

"we'll still hit some limits."

Yes, though I don't really see much for which there arent' substitutes.

"What are your views on Peak Phosphorus? "

I'm not sure yet. I think recycling will work.

" other fertilizer material."

I think nitrogen's not a fundamental problem.

Randall Parker said at December 25, 2008 12:32 PM:

Nick G,

The "everything will be okay" faction depends very heavily on long term total fertility rates. Also, by "everything" they've pretty much written off large numbers of other species.

In Bihar state India the fertility rate is on the rise.

The recent findings of the National Family Health Suffering 2005-2006 (NFHS 3) has shown an alarming increase in the fertility rate in Bihar even though the rates is decreasing every where else in the rest of the country.

With more children, Bihar is now seeing a rise in the percentage of underweight children and those suffering from growth-related problems. With increase in fertility rate from 3.7 in NFHS 2 to 4 in NFHS 3, Bihar has surprised many. A senior official said, "Couples were having more children earlier as infant mortality was high. But now even though fewer children are dying, the rise in fertility is unusual."

Bihar doesn't fit with the optimistic view. Granted, India overall is at 2.7. But selective pressures could reverse the fall.

I do not buy the argument that it will take 10 generations for the selective pressures to be felt. The stronger the selective pressure the faster the fertility-boosting genes get selected for. This huge decline in fertility means a huge selective pressure is at work. We know dumber women have kids sooner and in greater number. We also see differences based on religious belief. I see selective pressures a work both at the genetic and memetic levels.

Batteries: They work as a substitute at higher price points and less convenience. A pure electric car will have less range and cost far more. Batteries have got to come way down in price for that to change.

Randall Parker said at December 25, 2008 12:44 PM:


I just went to the IndexMundi web site to look at fertility rates. Malawi is cause for pessimism.

It is not a steady road of progress.

(and even as admin I can't get table tags in a comment - I had no idea my blog software strips out table-related HTML tags in comments)

Nick G said at December 25, 2008 3:46 PM:

"The "everything will be okay" faction"

"everything" and "will" are words I use sparingly. I like "most" and "likely" better.

"depends very heavily on long term total fertility rates"

"long term" is hard to predict, but the likeliest path shows overall ZPG relatively soon (this century). Africa is the worst place: there, we're likely to have somewhat self-contained disasters.

"by "everything" they've pretty much written off large numbers of other species."

True. They'd also have to dismiss AGW.

"Bihar doesn't fit with the optimistic view."

Bihar is only 7.2% of India's population. I'm sure you could find similar outliers elsewhere, but in the course of the next 100 years the surrounding society/culture will have enormous effect. The overall trend is quite clear.

" This huge decline in fertility means a huge selective pressure is at work."

I don't see how. Personal desire for children has always been a factor in reproduction. Now it's a larger one, but there's still an enormous amount of randomness, and confounding with class, nationality, education, etc, etc. After millions of years, why would 50 years of more fully ad-libitum breeding make a significant difference?

All of the links you've provided in the past suggested that a significant human evolutionary change in 1,000 years was considered very fast. Greater speed would require intense selective pressure, of the sort we see with dog breeding. That would require a very direct, causative relationship between genetic factors and reproduction, and we don't have anything like that here.

"We also see differences based on religious belief."

Rreligions can succumb to social pressure very quickly. Catholics in the US have almost identical contraceptive practices to the general population - that happened in only about 100 years.

That current fertility trends are likely to reverse is speculative - the likeliest course leads to stability. That doesn't mean it's impossible, but 1) we should acknowledge what's most likely, and 2) speculation needs evidence.

"Batteries: They work as a substitute at higher price points"

Yes, $2/gallon is slightly above the historical norm. Fortunately, it looks extremely likely that PHEV's will continue to expand quickly despite the current temporary fall in gas prices.

"and less convenience."

Plugins are more convenient - 15 seconds a night to plug in, and less when it's made automatic with some kind of cradle or automatic system.

"A pure electric car will have less range and cost far more. "

Who needs a pure EV? A PHEV-40 is far better in every way, and eliminates 90% of fuel. 90% is all we need.

Burk said at December 25, 2008 5:22 PM:

Nick is right. Aim for "good enough." The perfect is the mortal enemy of the good. Dots at the oil drum whine about anything that isn't perfect. Makes me puke. Grow up for crying out loud. Learn to solve problems, not just cry like a baby over them.

Nick G said at December 25, 2008 6:06 PM:

"Malawi is cause for pessimism."

Malawi doesn't look good. As I've acknowledged, Africa has the worst problems.

OTOH, at 14M, Malawi isn't big. I'm more worried about Nigeria, which is 10x as large.

john said at May 3, 2010 12:30 AM:

"The wild card for coal utilization, as I see it, is in situ gasification. This technology has been being worked on for decades, in what was the Soviet block in particular. It would enable otherwise inaccessible coal -- such as coal at great depth, or on continental shelves -- to be exploited."

So why hasn't it been ?
Because, sadly, there simply isn't much coal that far down.

Nick G said at May 3, 2010 9:02 AM:


Could you provide sources/links for that? From what I've seen, there are enormous amounts of coal at depth (for better or worse - probably worse). From memory, I've seen articles about such resources in Canada, the UK and Australia.

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