Coal: The Reigning and Future King

In a reality-based world, stories like this (and it seems there are a few each week) should act like smelling salts to those who blame climate “deniers” and the media for lack of action on global warming. Here’s The Guardian’s lede:

Vast reserves of coal in the far west of China mean it is set to become the “new Middle East”, a leading figure in the global coal industry has claimed. Fred Palmer, the chairman of the London-based World Coal Association and a key executive at Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately owned coal company, also said that China is leading the US in efforts to develop technology to “clean” coal of its carbon emissions by burying them underground.

Given China’s voracious energy needs, it seems a foregone conclusion that those “vast reserves” will be tapped. No need to harp on the implications for global warming. Perhaps greens and climate activists ought to take the “clean coal” initiatives outlined in this recent James Fallows article in The Atlantic more seriously.

14 Responses to “Coal: The Reigning and Future King”

  1. NewYorkJ says:

    Reigning and future king?  I’m not sure about that.  I just read this today:
    The last coal-fired power plant in the Pacific Northwest will shut down completely by 2025 under an agreement announced Saturday by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. The first boiler of TransAlta’s 1,460-megawatt plant in Centralia, Wash., is set to go offline in 2020 and the second in 2025.

    The Sierra Club and other groups have been hammering at the coal industry over the last decade, and at coal-fired power plants in particular, as a leading source of environmental toxins and greenhouse-gas emissions.  A Bush administration energy plan had proposed 150 new coal-fired power plants, later increased to 200. Litigation and public outcry have stopped most them. Of the 200 proposed plants, 150 have been dropped, 16 have been built, and the remainder are still the subject of ongoing litigation and negotiation.

    China is likely to continue increasing coal emissions for awhile, but the future for coal is not clear, despite what optimistic coal industry leaders say. 

    Although there’s plenty of uncertainty regarding viability of clean coal (as opposed to current “clean coal”) research should continue.

  2. BBD says:

    According to the EIA 2011 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) report:

    Non-hydro renewables are projected to grow to 14% (US) by 2035


    Coal remains the dominant energy source for electricity generation (Figure 2) because of continued reliance on existing coal-fired plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is not projecting any new central station coal-fired plants, however, beyond those already under construction or supported by clean coal incentives.

    Coal is projected to fall from 45% (2009) to 43% (2035).

    The EIA International Energy Outlook 2010 (IEO) report states:

    Strong economic growth in [China and India] continues over the projection period, with their combined energy use more than doubling and accounting for 30 percent of total world energy consumption in 2035 in the Reference case. In contrast, the U.S. share of world energy consumption falls from 21 percent in 2007 to about 16 percent in 2035 (Figure 14).

    Energy use in non-OECD Asia (led by China and India) shows the most robust growth of all the non-OECD regions, rising by 118 percent from 2007 to 2035 (Figure 15).


    World coal consumption increases by 1.6 percent per year on average from 2007 to 2035, but most of the growth in demand occurs after 2020. Worldwide coal consumption increased by 35 percent between 2002 and 2007, largely because of the growth in China’s coal use.

    [See also Fig 13 and Fig 17]

    While I am well aware that not everyone regards the EIA’s output as gospel, it is strongly suggestive of the importance of non-OECD coal in the global energy mix going forward.

    The once and future king may be with us for a while yet.

  3. Gaythia says:

    I think that the paragraph in the Guardian article that we in the USA ought to be paying more attention to is this one:

    “Earlier this month, Peabody Energy confirmed it intends to build a vast new port in Washington state by 2015, to ship coal mined in Wyoming across to China. The plans have been strongly criticised by environmental groups in the US. Greg Boyce, Peabody’s chief executive, had said the port would export 24 million tonnes a year, but Palmer revealed to the Guardian that this “could reach up to 50 million a year”.

    This, in my opinion, illustrates the difference between a nation focusing on natural resource, industrialization, and other economic issues through a highly nationalistic lens (without the short term welfare of their people in mind), as opposed to one where corporations are free to operate for very short term gains (without the long term welfare of the people of the nation in which they happen to sort of be based, in mind).

    Our Montana and Wyoming coal is of better quality than China’s own coal.  It should not, in my opinion, be sold at a rate that makes it economically viable to ship overseas for consumption.

    In the future, we will undoubtedly be able to make use of this coal in an environmentally more reasonable way than simply burning it and sending the products up a smokestack.  Perhaps with clean coal technology or as a chemical feedstock, for example.
    Nations that base their economies on selling basic commodities at low cost  are not the ones that advance.

  4. BBD says:

    I’m surprised there has been so little comment to this post.
    The industrialisation of China, India et al. (BRIC economies) is a gigantic problem for current EU/US climate/energy policy direction.
    Chinese and Indian emissions are the biggest obstacle global emissions abatement programs face. Yet here in the UK, as in the EU and the US, policy makers act as though the industrialised economies are somehow capable of influence through ‘moral leadership’ over emissions regulation. This is painful nonsense.
    I am aware of the rhetoric coming out of Beijing re clean energy, carbon intensity, energy intensity etc. but I don’t think the Chinese leadership has a free hand (or believes that it does).
    The pace of industrialisation is increasingly being driven by rapidly growing internal markets and this – not absolute dependence on exports – is the real future for China’s economy. The same is ultimately going to be true for India.
    China has a single, over-arching problem: the maintenance of civil order is predicated on continuing growth. That’s the ‘deal’ the leadership has ‘made’ with the population.
    That’s why the new five year plan is set alongside a sharp rise in public security spending which has – for the first time – overtaken the military budget. This last observation deserves far more attention than it is getting.
    We do indeed live in interesting times.
    More here from the Guardian Environment blog:

    With its new five-year plan, China is trying to avoid an ecological crash by gradually easing speed and changing direction.
    But this could pose a challenge to social stability. If the government is serious about slowing economic growth, trimming emissions, conserving scarce resources and improving air and water quality, there will be a social and political cost to pay. Unemployment is expected to creep up, commodity prices are likely to rise and polluters and power companies will not accept restrictions without a fight.
    If China had a democracy, the struggle could be conducted on the hustings and in the press and the courts. Without those means for conflict resolution, the government may well need more police to impose its goals.

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    “I’m surprised there has been so little comment to this post.”
    I used to be surprised when I’d put up posts like these and they’d attract little commentary, but not anymore.

  6. BBD says:

    I used to be surprised when I’d put up posts like these and they’d attract little commentary, but not anymore.
    Profoundly saddening.

  7. Marlowe Johnson says:

    “China has a single, over-arching problem: the maintenance of civil order is predicated on continuing growth. That’s the “˜deal’ the leadership has “˜made’ with the population.”
    That does indeed encapsulate it nicely.  And this is one of the reasons that technology transfer, rather than international carbon pricing, has to play a bigger role at the international level.  Whether or not such a shift in emphasis has a better chance of success than Kyoto-style policies remains to be seen.

  8. BBD says:

    Marlowe J @ #7
    The current degree of interdependency would seem to facilitate cooperation, but mutual suspicion (hostility?) might get out of hand further down the road.
    Once China’s internal markets and trade with India allow it a greater degree of independence from US/EU trade, and once it has acquired relevant nuclear and renewables technology, why should China behave itself?
    It has the US economy over a barrel in terms of holding US debt already. It -could- even wage economic war against the US/Europe by withholding trade.
    Imagine a world turned upside-down. China could eventually take the view that the easiest way to curb US/European emissions would be to shut the West down economically both via a cessation of exports and through the financial markets.
    Nobody talks about this. Hopefully because it is far-fetched and way off the mark.

  9. Tom Fuller says:

    Keith, you’re competing with yourself. I like this topic and have written on it frequently at examiner–but I guess I have to strike a false balance on where to spend my coffee break…

  10. Steven Sullivan says:

    #5 KK, maybe it’s because  sensible people (a phrase always fraught with caveats…but let’s stipulate it includes some ‘greens’ too) all know that if China (and to a lesser extent, India) continues to burgeon economically, but fails to meaningfully embrace CO2 emissions control, then the fight is basically lost.
    What sort of commentary are you looking for?

  11. Gaythia says:

    I think that it speaks to the issues that the other, more active conversations going on are debating.
    A journalist brings up a serious topic of momentous impact, and it fails to attract an engaged readership.
    Is this an example of why media owners do not hire many journalists to write lengthy, sober and detailed reports on matters of scientific interest and policy urgency?

  12. Tom Fuller says:

    I’ve written several times that using straight line calculations that the world will be using more energy than either the DOE or the UN calculate–as much as 3,000 quads by 2075 if the developing world chooses the American consumption model, possibly as little as 2,000 quads if they are able to adopt a northern European model.

    I usually proffer the example of China and Spain. China currently has a per capita energy consumption of 58 million btus per annum, leading to 100 quads total consumption. They are expected to develop to Spain’s level of per capita income by 2030. Spain has a per capita energy consumption of 123 million btus at present. And there are three ‘Chinas’: China herself, a China of currently living people who will develop in similar fashion across the world, and a China waiting to be born into this world.

    At this point in time, there are only two available sources to handle the increase needed. Coal and nuclear power. China obviously believes it will need both, planning as many as 200 nuclear power plants while also planning to increase coal consumption. China currently gets 70% of their energy from coal. That may drop to 65% as they go forward, but it will be 65% of a much larger figure and their total coal consumption will increase dramatically. The increase projected for Chinese coal consumption is equal to global coal consumption today.

    It’s a tidal wave of coal coming our way. It will not be pretty.

  13. BBD says:

    Tom Fuller #12
    I recall your piece. I have tried before to explain to various of the climate concerned that they are pointing the wrong way (ie at the industrialised economies). To no avail.
    The same self-identifying group has members who treat any questioning of the real effectiveness of energy/climate policy as utterly beyond the pale.
    Occasionally I get a long, usually hectoring response about China’s commitment to renewables etc. Attempts to explain the physics, engineering and economic reasons why renewables can only displace some fossil fuels are blanked.
    As per #10 Steven Sullivan and #11 Gaythia: the great industrialisation of the 21st century is the issue.
    And the ‘concerned’ (who would of course be rendered rather beside the point) don’t want to talk about it.
    Especially as it means accepting the reality that China and India will burn their vast coal reserves not out of perversity but out of economic necessity.
    Let’s hope the guarded optimism of James Fallows’ Atlantic article proves to be well founded.

  14. Tom Fuller says:

    China really is going after renewables. Their efforts in hydro are almost gargantuan. And they really would love for both solar and wind to work out–although that is primarily because they want to export renewable parts and equipment. They do want it for domestic as well, but they obviously don’t think it will be a major factor short term.

    They also are pushing hard for Combined Heat and Power as well. I honestly think they are making a real good faith effort. It’s just that the numbers don’t add up without mountains of coal, and they understand that without constant power availability, everything about their social contract with the Chinese people falls apart.

    They don’t have a lot of really good options available to them at this point.

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