MuseLetter #193 / May 2008
by Richard Heinberg

It’s Happening

This month I’ve done an unusual amount of travel. The early days of the month I was on the tail-end of a trip to the UK and Canada, which included a conference at Findhorn, Scotland, appearances in Lewes, Leicester, and Forest of Dean, and two presentations in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Mid-month saw lectures at the local Junior College and the University of Oregon in Eugene via video teleconference. The latter half of the month is mostly devoted to an intensive tour of New England, with many lectures as well as meetings with state officials.

With all of this activity it has been a challenge to keep up with writing. My book-in-progress on future coal supplies is going well but slowly at the moment (two more sections of the draft of Chapter 1 are included here). Also in this month’s MuseLetter are my May column for The Ecologist magazine (“What Car do You Drive?”), a Foreword that I’ve written for the new edition of Mat Stein’s brilliant book When Technology Fails, and a brief blog for the Post Carbon Institute website.

What Kind of Coal?

Coal is a fossil fuel and therefore non-renewable. A combustible, sedimentary, organic rock composed mainly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, it was formed from vegetation consolidated between other rock strata and altered by the combined effects of pressure and heat over millions of years.

While oil and gas were formed primarily from enormous quantities of microscopic plants (algae) that fell to the bottoms of prehistoric seas, coal is the altered remains of ancient vegetation that accumulated in swamps and peat bogs (peat currently covers 3 percent of Earth’s surface; in previous geologic eras, that percentage was much higher). While oil and gas were formed during two relatively brief periods of intense global warming, roughly 150 and 90 million years ago, coal formation started much earlier and occurred during much longer time spans, with the first primary formation period occurring during the late Carboniferous period (roughly 360 to 290 million years ago), another in the Jurassic-Cretaceous (200 to 65 million years ago), and a third in the Tertiary (65 to 2 million years ago).

All fossil fuels vary in quality. For example, oil from some geological sources is more viscous and may have more impurities as compared to oil from other sources; natural gas likewise varies by chemical composition: its main ingredient, methane, may be accompanied by larger or smaller amounts of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, or other impurities; if the latter are too extensive the gas is considered uncommercial and is not extracted.

Coal’s variability is in some respects even greater than that of oil or gas: the range of energy density between and among hard and soft coals is wide, as is the range of impurities in coals from differing regions. Much of this variability has to do with the degree of alteration undergone by the original plant material, a process known as coalification. At the high end of the coal spectrum is anthracite—a hard, black coal that has more carbon, less moisture, and produces more energy per kilogram than other coals. At the low end are lignite and sub-bituminous coals, which are brown, friable, and have more moisture, less carbon, and a lower energy content. Coal that contains high amounts of mineral impurities (especially sulfur) may be unusable.

The qualities of coal determine its uses. Generally, only anthracite is suitable for making coke for steel production, a process that requires high temperatures; it is therefore referred to as “metallurgical coal” or “coking coal.” Since anthracite is much less abundant than other coals, it sells for higher prices; it also therefore tends to be mined preferentially. Other coals are used mainly for electricity generation and are therefore known as “steam coal,” but this category includes a wide variety of coal types, from bituminous to lignite. At the lowest end of the spectrum are coals that are barely distinguishable from peat.

Even a thick seam of high-quality coal may be unrecoverable if it happens to lie beneath a town, school, or cemetery. Accessibility is also an important factor: lack of nearby transport infrastructure can pose a serious economic hurdle, since the transportation of coal can account for up to 70 percent of its delivered cost. The cheapest mode of transport for coal is by water; thus coalfields nearest coastal areas are most likely to be tapped for the global export market. While the oil industry has learned to access offshore petroleum and gas, coal that is buried in marine environments is difficult to extract economically with current technology, though there are exceptions (undersea coal has been mined in Britain since the 18th century, and is currently mined on a small scale also in Chile, Japan, China, and Canada).

Coal varies greatly in depth, from surface outcrops to seams buried thousands of feet down. In most instances, underground mining is practical only to a depth of about 3000 feet (1000 meters), though the world’s deepest coalmine, in England, reaches 5000 feet (1500 meters). Obviously, the costs of mining at great depth are much higher than those of working at the surface. Worldwide, 40 percent of produced coal is surface mined (in the US, about 60 percent of produced coal is surface mined).

Coal seams also vary in thickness, from only a few inches to well over 100 feet. Unless they are very close to the surface, seams less than 28 inches in thickness are likely to be uneconomic to mine.

These variations in energy density, quality, location, depth, and thickness all must figure into calculations when geologists and energy analysts attempt to answer the question, “How much useful coal exists”? Cut-off points for whether coal is judged economical to produce tend to be vague and changeable. Two variables capable of affecting such decisions are price and technology. If the price of coal rises, producers may find it economic to dig deeper, to exploit thinner seams, or to mine lower-quality deposits. And with new machines for mining, coal that was uneconomic in the past may now become profitable.

On one hand, as more coal is discovered, as the price goes up, and as new mining machines are developed, coal reserves expand. On the other hand, as we extract and use enormous amounts of coal each year, we draw down those reserves.

One might expect that overall reserves figures would change fairly slowly and in a predictable fashion. In fact, as we will see, reserves figures for several nations have collapsed in recent years, and over the past few decades centuries’ worth of coal has disappeared from global reserves. Given that the world’s economy depends so heavily on coal, this trend is hardly reassuring. If we wish to understand how and why such downward reserves revisions are occurring, it is essential that we look more deeply into the rather specialized, technical process of estimating coal reserves.

How Coal Reserves Are Estimated

The estimation of coal reserves has evolved through the decades, and now constitutes a sophisticated process entailing the work of thousands of trained and experienced coal geologists around the world.

The first step is to identify prospective areas. This is accomplished by means of old-fashioned, painstaking geological fieldwork, carried out with map, compass, and pick. Geologists typically look for coal outcroppings in rock strata exposed by streambeds or by ancient earth movements. Once a prospective area has been identified, cores are drilled to determine the thickness and depth of coal seams, as well as the quality and characteristics of the coal itself. These cores are carefully analyzed and logged to yield a three-dimensional map of the region. Then, using such maps, field sizes are estimated. Finally, reserves for entire regions are estimated by totaling field-by-field estimates.

No matter how carefully this process is pursued, it inevitably incorporates many judgment calls. Remember: reserves are defined not as the total amount of coal present (that’s the resource); rather, they are the portion of the resource that can be expected to be extractable at a profit using existing technology. Not only are reserves limited by resource quality, seam thickness, depth, and location, but analysts must take into account the fact that the mining process will inevitably leave some of the resource behind. This is especially true in the case of underground mining, where in some instances a majority of the coal originally in place remains. A coal-mining engineer in South Africa once described to me in conversation how cost-driven mining techniques often disregard poorer-quality resources, and do so in such a way that once an underground mine is shut down, it is likely never to be re-opened. E. N. Cameron’s At the Crossroads: The Mineral Problems of the United States (1986) discusses how “workings deteriorate, and cave-ins may occur” in abandoned mines, frequently leading to a situation where “costs of rehabilitation may become prohibitive,” “mining of the poorer seams may never be resumed,” and “the coal involved in such mines becomes a lost resource.”

Historically, recovery percentages for underground mining average about 50 percent; for surface mining, 85 percent.

In the ideal case, all of these variables will have been taken into account when a final reserves number for a region or a nation is produced and published. However, ideal cases are rare.

The task of reserves analysts is made difficult, for example, by the fact that private coal companies often keep their data proprietary. Thus when a public agency sets out to compile national reserves statistics, it may find significant gaps in available data. Moreover, some nations simply don’t have the personnel or funding needed in order to properly compile and update records.

There is no single internationally recognized, uniform method for assessing and reporting reserves as a fraction of resources. In the US, coal geologists work with the following carefully defined categories:

  • original resources
  • remaining resources
  • identified resources
  • inferred resources
  • measured resources
  • reserve base
  • inferred reserves
  • indicated reserves
  • measured reserves
  • marginal reserves, and
  • sub-economic resources.

But other countries have their own sets of categories, with varying definitions. Assembling national reserves figures into a composite global picture is therefore a task of enormous complexity. One might expect that this would be the work of teams of data analysts working for the International Energy Agency or some well-funded, prestigious institute. Surprisingly, the task is actually carried out by a husband-and-wife team—Alan Clarke and Judy Trinnaman, whose company, Energy Data Associates, is headquartered in Dorset, England. Clarke and Trinnaman send a questionnaire annually to every nation in the world. According to Clarke, about two-thirds of nations reply, but only about 50 of these replies typically are useful. Some reported data must simply be disregarded as unrealistic. No effort is made to verify reported national reserves figures through independent geological surveys.

The figures from Energy Data Associates are then taken up in the triennial report of the World Energy Council, and are subsequently republished by the IEA, USGS, BP, etc.

Clarke and Trinnaman do the best they can with the information available to them, but given the nature of their data collection methods the results could hardly be regarded with a high level of confidence. (To be continued…)

Foreword to

When Technology Fails

by Matthew Stein, second edition

Technology will fail. You can count on it.

We humans have been making tools for tens of thousands of years. For a similarly long stretch of time we’ve been talking to ourselves and to one another, developing the other strategy that has made us so formidable as a species—languagemaking. Language helped us refine and expand our toolmaking and tool use (imagine trying to produce something as simple as a stone knife if you couldn’t benefit from anyone else’s experience); meanwhile, we invented a range of tools to increase our ability to communicate (writing, printing, the telephone, radio, television, computer networks, and so on). These two strategies—toolmaking and languagemaking—have together made us the most successful large-bodied animal species in planetary history.

Energy always set the rules of the game. All animals obtain their basic biological energy through food (second-hand sunlight), and exert energy through muscles to get what they want and need. Tools helped us leverage muscle energy, and language gave us social power by enabling us to cooperatively strategize, and to diffuse our ideas over distance and time. Both enabled us to appropriate more and more biosphere functions for our own purposes. But always we remained subject to the net energy principle: it takes energy to get energy, and the net marginal profit (from hunting or gardening or farming) was limited and variable, even with the help of bows and arrows, horse collars, and plows.

During the past two centuries, fossil fuels made net energy effectively irrelevant. Suddenly we had access to energy sources produced over geologic time that we could draw down at arbitrarily high rates. The energy required to explore and drill for oil was trivial compared to the energy we could get from burning the stuff. With cheap, high-quality, concentrated fossil energy sources, we could make far more tools than ever before, including mobile ones that carried their energy supply with them. We could make tool networks. We could mechanize production processes. We could free nearly everyone from food-producing routines for other occupations—as factory workers, managers, salespeople, accountants, computer programmers, or advertising artists.

As a result we now live in what French philosopher Jacques Ellul famously called the “technological society”—though he might equally have called it the “fossil-fuel society.” It is a pattern of living so suffused with, and linked by, powered tool and information systems that we have become overwhelming as a species (we’ve taken over about 40 percent of the biological productivity of the planet), but utterly vulnerable as individuals. All that’s necessary to cripple us is for the electricity to go out for a few days.

Indeed, the entire system has failure built into it. It is based on the ever-increasing consumption of depleting, non-renewable energy resources. As we consume the cheapest, most easily accessed of those resources and are forced down the net-energy ladder, the technological systems on which we have come to depend will inevitably shudder and give way.

That’s what I mean when I say technology will fail.

But don’t take my word for it. A recent issue of New Scientist (April 5, 2008) explored the emerging study of how and why complex societies tend to collapse, leading with an article titled, “Why the Demise of Civilization May Be Inevitable.”

Many people think of modern technology as if it were a magical, autonomous entity capable of overcoming our ancient net-energy constraints. In reality, modern technology has merely increased our exposure to collapse. We should stop assuming that just because we’re smarter than the ancient Romans and Mayans, we can’t be brought down by analogous system failures.

Once we begin to come to terms with all of this, what should we do?

Start by identifying tools that are not dependent on the systems most likely to fail. In other words, find tools you can rely on that don’t require fossil fuels or an operating electricity grid system.

Re-learn the skills that enabled our ancestors to thrive without fossil fuels. Get in touch with others who are similarly interested in surviving collapse, and work with them to create community resilience.

Not all of the tools and skills that are likely to be helpful to us are ancient. A good solar cooker, for example, can enable us to heat food cheaply and conveniently without natural gas or electricity—and the solar cookers available today are far more effective than anything that might have been used by tribal peoples in ages past. In other instances, though, we are likely to find ourselves treading well-worn paths, developing ever more respect for how people in traditional societies intelligently solved life’s persistent problems.

For the most part, simpler technologies are likely to be less environmentally ruinous than the high-powered tool systems on which we have come to rely. Thus any effort we make to return to more reliable and resilient tools will also constitute a giant step toward sustainability and environmentally responsible self-sufficiency.

Clearly, information resources will be enormously helpful in our learning (or re-learning) process. That’s where this book comes in.

When I saw the first edition of When Technology Fails in 2000, I was impressed. Here was a comprehensive review of the tools and skills—and the literature—anyone would need in order to get by as technological society hit the skids.

Now, Matthew Stein has updated his classic text, adding a new chapter on proactive actions for making the shift toward sustainability (both personal and global), and updating all the existing chapters with the latest information, including resource guides. The first edition was written before 9/11, when the term “peak oil” was relatively unknown and “global warming” was still considered a fringe topic. A lot has changed in the world since then.

A single book can’t do everything. There is just too much we need to know. Moreover, many skills need to be learned directly from a teacher (you might be able to learn to operate a fire drill on the basis of diagrams, but for me it took personal interaction with someone who was already good at using one). Nevertheless, When Technology Fails succeeds at just about everything we could realistically hope one book might do to inform us ahead of when technology does falter.

Will technology warn us before it fails? It seems to me that it is doing so now. The price of oil is setting new records almost daily. Electricity grids are straining and buckling in countries around the world. Food prices are skyrocketing and food riots are erupting. All you have to do is turn on your computer and surf the Internet for a few minutes and technology will reveal to you all you need to know about how vulnerable technology is making us.

Get ready. Read this book and follow its suggestions for skills development and further research. Adjust your own oxygen mask before helping others.

What Car Do You Drive?

The question inevitably arises soon after readers or lecture audiences first become acquainted with global oil depletion and climate change. I must be asked it at least once a week. Sometimes I reply by reciting how I didn’t buy my first car till age 40, how I later drove an old diesel Mercedes while belonging to a local biodiesel co-operative, how I scrapped that fume-belching heap of metal and replaced it with a Toyota Yaris to protest the Brontosaurian dimensions of the typical American SUV, and how I now often get around town on an electric scooter. But that answer, while respecting the query’s intent, fails to advance the conversation. The question presumes a continuation of car-centered culture, and that is precisely what must be called into doubt.

In many parts of the world (especially North America), automobile ownership is a given. Throughout the last century, the petroleum, automotive, and road-building industries amassed and exerted enormous political power, systematically foreclosing all other transport options through efforts either to starve rail and public transit infrastructure of funds, or to buy them up and dismantle them. Bucking the current massive system of highways and short-lived personal dream machines often requires courage, dedication, and planning. Very few individuals are sufficiently motivated.

Thus it’s understandable that the first policy response to depleting petroleum reserves and the climate threat has been a rush toward biofuels and coal-to-liquids technologies—rather than a questioning of the auto-centric system itself. Yet if either of these alternative fuel sources is expanded enough to replace oil, the car (rather than the atom bomb) may end up being the invention that destroys the world.

Our transition away from fossil fuels will require a societal effort at a scale and speed never before seen; given the limits on our time and money, we cannot afford to waste both investment capital and precious years pursuing false solutions like alternative fuels. Electric cars may be a better idea, since there are lots of promising renewable sources of electricity. But when we step back and compare auto-based transport systems with rail-based options, even electric cars come out looking like resource gluttons. We don’t need alternative cars; we need alternatives to cars, starting with ways to reduce our need for travel in the first place.

Perhaps those of us who have arrived at this conclusion may be forgiven a less-than-joyous response to the recent unveiling of Tata Motor Company’s $2500 Nano, an auto being marketed to tens of millions of previously car-free Asians who can now afford a scaled-down version of the object that half-a-billion inhabitants of wealthier countries take for granted.

Doesn’t everyone deserve the comfort and convenience enjoyed by Americans and Europeans?

It’s an insidious question. Like the title of this essay, it presupposes a great deal. Only by unpacking and ruthlessly picking apart our assumptions about the future of transportation can we hope to overcome the sinister logic of universal car ownership—a logic that leads to universal destruction. Are biofuels a bad idea in every single instance? Probably not. Should car owners be demonized? That’s neither polite nor helpful. But until we collectively, through coordinated policies, reverse course and stop both building roads and looking to alternative fuels for a solution to environmental problems, we’re all on a highway to hell.

It’s Happening

There is a surreal quality to the experience of seeing the unfolding of unpleasant events that one has predicted. Plenty of times over the past few years I’ve said, “I want to be proven wrong!” Who in their right mind would wish to see economic collapse and famine? But it was obvious that, given the direction our society is headed, these must be the consequences. Now, with oil at $117 a barrel, the US economy teetering, and food riots erupting in Haiti, Egypt, and Asia, one could perhaps gain some satisfaction in saying “I told you so.” But what faint compensation that would be. We are all going to have to share the bitter fruits of our society’s century-long growth binge, whether we have criticized it or participated wholeheartedly. The only silver lining is the possibility that now, at last, as the trends (Peak Oil, the failure of growth-based economics, the failure of industrial agriculture, climate chaos, and so on) are becoming so starkly clear, policy makers will begin seriously to contemplate a Plan B (or C, as Pat Murphy insists). For those of us who have been lobbying in that latter direction for some while, this is no time to let up, but rather the ideal moment to redouble our efforts.