Will world coal last for 300 years?

The Perception that coal is the fossil fuel of last resort may well be an illusion. David Strahan, New Scientist, 19/1/2008

You may have heard the term Peak Oil (meaning that demand has exceeded the world's oil producers ability to supply). An article in the New Scientist in Jan 2008 introduced the concept (to me at least) of Peak Coal. Like many I'd sort of assumed that there were sufficient reserves of coal for many decades, maybe for over a century, and that we'd have plenty of coal after the oil wells ran dry, or oil topped $300 a barrel.

Part of his evidence is that global reserves have fallen by 170 billion tonnes since 1988 (far more than has been consumed) down to around 847 billion tonnes, and the reserves/production ratio has fallen from 277 years worth to 144 years between 2000 and 2007 (annual global production is about 6 billion tonnes). Also the price of good quality 'hard' coal has increased from $30/tonne in 2000 to $130 in 2008, thanks in part to soaring demand from India and China. China is now a net coal importer, much of it's remaining reserves are deeper than 1000m and is difficult to get at - although as the Coal Geology page shows, there's Barnsley seam coal at that depth below Lincoln! Yet despite the incentive of high price official reserves have not increased. A higher price would normally make more difficult coal worth getting, and therefore increase reserves, but says Strahan, this has not happened.

Another piece of evidence cited is something called Hubert linearisation analysis which predicts that there are about 450 billion tonnes of gettable coal.

It is puzzling that despite the high price of coal, there's been relatively little re-opening of the remaining reserves, e.g the pits in the J31 area. One remark in his article is that flooding and subsidence may have 'sterilised' significant reserves, making the coal unmineable - this is a credible fate for many of the pits in the Yorks coalfields - the tory government of the early 1990s under Heseltine and Major shut the pits down - few were mothballed or benefitted from maintenance. So maybe many of the reserves beneath Thurcroft, Dinnington, Kiveton et al may as well be on the moon as far as deep mining is concerned (although the seams may be 'fracked' for coal bed methane).

It should be said that bodies like the World Coal Council deny that peak coal is around the corner, and also that humans as a species may not be able to afford to burn the hundreds of billions of tonnes of the carbon in that coal anyway due to its global warming effects (in which case we'd better accelerate the nuclear and renewables programmes very urgently).

As the Chinese curse goes "We live in interesting times".