World Coal Reserves Could Be Much Smaller Than Previously Thought

Coal Miner Photo

Lots of Coal, But Less than we Thought?
Dave Rutledge, the chair of Caltech's engineering and applied sciences division, has release a new estimate of the world's coal reserves that he says is more accurate than previous ones. The bad news: There's still lots and lots of dirty coal in the ground. The good news: There's probably a lot less than we thought. His total estimate of all the coal that humans will ever get out of the ground is 662 billion tons, while the previous estimates had 850 billion tons still left in the ground. That makes a difference. Read on for more.From Wired Magazine:

Rutledge argues that governments are terrible at estimating their own fossil fuel reserves. He developed his new model by looking back at historical examples of fossil fuel exhaustion. For example, British coal production fell precipitously form its 1913 peak. American oil production famously peaked in 1970, as controversially predicted by King Hubbert. Both countries had heartily overestimated their reserves.

It was from manipulating the data from the previous peaks that Rutledge developed his new model, based on fitting curves to the cumulative production of a region. He says that they provide much more stable estimates than other techniques and are much more accurate than those made by individual countries.

Coal in hands photo

And Rutledge is not alone thinking that coal reserves have been overestimated.

According to the The National Research Council's Committee on Coal Research, Technology, and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy's 2007 report:

"Present estimates of coal reserves are based upon methods that have not been reviewed or revised since their inception in 1974, and much of the input data were compiled in the early 1970's. Recent programs to assess reserves in limited areas using updated methods indicate that only a small fraction of previously estimated reserves are actually mineable reserves."

Are We Saved? Not So Fast...
Using these new estimates, burning the world's coal would lead to 460 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, which would cause a 2-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures. That's still too much according to many scientists who would like to see CO2 at 350 ppm, but that scenario would still be better than those based on the current hypotethical coal reserves.

Did we just replace flawed estimates with new flawed estimates? Maybe. It's probably too early to know.

Either way, the math is simple. Less coal = good. Small reserves, big reserves, we should phase it out as quickly as possible. But we should always use the best information available and not cherry pick it because it is useful.

Via Wired
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