Peak Coal

Indented text quoted from “The Maze of Ingenuity”, Arnold Pacey, first MIT press paperback edition, pp 298 ff, 1985 edition, written in 1974. Words in italic are attributed therein to W. S. Jevons. (Hopefully this renders reasonably in your browser. )

During the 1860’s, the earlier optimism of Babbage and many of his contemporaries was challenged in a well-argued book on Britains coal resources written by th eeconomist W. Stanley Jevons. The life of Victorian England depended so heavily on the steam engine, Jevons said, and accessible deposits of coal were relatively so limited, that the nation’s material prosperity could not continue to increase for much longer.

He claimed that if the observed rate of increase were to continue indefinitely, then total quantity of coal mined prior to a future date, estimated as 1961, would inevitable eventually exceed total reserves.

What would happen, Jevons said, was

that coal would have to be obtained from progressively deeper seams, and so would become increasingly expensive. Consumption would no longer increase by 3.5 % annually. It would become static, and then begin to fall; ‘the conclusion is inevitable, that our present happy, progressive condition is a thing of limited duration.’

He also said that if we

“lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation and distribution of our riches, it is hard to overestimate the pitch of benevolent influence to which we might attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.”

Peak Oil Explained

Thanks to the anonymous poster who pointed me to Quark Soup, which seems to maintain an excellent compendium of timely science links. I’ve blogrolled it and intend to follow it. I also won’t be shy about adding a few words about some of the more interesting links. (For instance I note the irrepressible Matt Huber appears again, this time on a story of making use of CCSM a little less painful. Boy, there’s a timely issue for me. But that wasn’t even my favorite link of the first batch I saw.)

I always appreciate when people manage to boil the essentials of complex issues down to a few words. I’m not sure that is what lit crit people mean by framing, but it’s what I mean. Quark Soup points to a fine example which appeared in this The Independent story about peak oil:

According to “peak oil” theory our consumption of oil will catch, then outstrip our discovery of new reserves and we will begin to deplete known reserves.

Colin Campbell, the head of the depletion centre, said: “It’s quite a simple theory and one that any beer drinker understands. The glass starts full and ends empty and the faster you drink it the quicker it’s gone.”

Dr Campbell, is a former chief geologist and vice-president at a string of oil majors including BP, Shell, Fina, Exxon and ChevronTexaco.

The Coal Thing

Kevin Vranes summarizes the news nicely.

Upadte: I’m not suggesting that anything Vranes says supports the following. I think he provides important context. I don’t know whether or not he agrees with me.

To the extent that we can’t get by without liquid fuels, we have an out, but we have to pay for it.

Update: It appears likely that we won’t pay for it, which would constitute a tragic missed opportunity. We can use this occasion to civilize the coal interests, and instead we seem to be encouraging their cynicism.

Gasoline-like fuel from coal would be a good thing in the short run. It would release us from the disastrous situation in the middle east that we, um, don’t seem to be improving very much. We could dodge the peak oil crisis and have a little more time to work toward a rational long-term strategy. It’s potentially the sort of lucky break we don’t deserve but at this point need.

The only way to pay for it is to require sequestering any carbon that can be sequestered in the production process and mandate it for all coal plants as quickly as possible. It is perfectly sensible to subsidize the transition.

Failing to place such a requirement while directly subsidizing the process is government malfeasance of the highest order. The fact that both parties seem aligned to this is about as depressing a fact as I can imagine.

However, the idea of liquid fuels from coal, with source capture of the non-mobile CO2 sources, is perfectly reasonable. Any reasonably sensible carbon policy would make that step inevitable. I am perfectly OK with subsidizing the coal interests to become responsible players in the society, so long as the end user price stays high and gradually increasing, and as much of the CO2 as possible is sequestered.

So we have an opportunity to get the coal people to butter their bread on the same side the rest of us do, dodge the peak oil bullet, bail out of the middle east fiasco, and not make the climate problem worse. A big win.

By saying “coal is the enemy” we act against this outcome, though. We want the coal people to see sequestration as favorable to them.

Reagrdless, if a requirement for CO2 sequestration is dropped from the picture, it is congressional malfeasance of the highest order; we are essentially halving our vehicle efficiency as a gift to the people who have been causing a whole lot of the trouble, and we will make new enemies worldwide in the process.