Conventional Wisdom on Coal Supplies Questioned

National Geographic Daily News‘ Mason Inman recently wrote a story “Mining the Truth on Coal Supplies” that questions the conventional wisdom on the future availability of coal as a low-cost energy source. Inman’s story puts forward “A view that the world’s leading electricity fuel—and major contributor to climate change—is running out” and draws on the results of a recent study published in the August issue of Energy ($). Conducted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Tad Patzek, the study suggests that “peak coal” — the point at which production peaks and future production only declines — could hit as early as next year.

This estimate is significantly earlier than many other estimates of recoverable coal resources, and Inman’s article cites several other reserves projections including the World Coal Institute in London and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, sources which project at least 119 years remaining of coal resources and continued and substantial growth of coal consumption for electricity respectively.
However, Inman writes: “No matter how bad coal might be for the planet, the conventional wisdom is that there is so much of it underground that the world’s leading fuel for electricity will continue to dominate the energy scene unless global action is taken on climate change. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?”
It is exactly that ‘But’ that the Appalachian Transition movement seeks to address. The ‘What if’ becomes ‘What then’ — what do we as a community, a county, a region need to do to prepare ourselves for significant change? What can we do?
The German financial powerhouse Deutsche Bank has studied the issue of another impending significant shift– global climate change — and announced earlier this week that preparing for such changes (and specifically, insuring against the impacts of such changes) is the only strategy for managing their $7 billion dollar portfolio currently held in climate funds. (See Joe Romm’s piece or Brad Johnson’s article for more detail on this matter).
It is that same kind of hedging our collective bets — that an economic change is very likely to affect Appalachia, and that the way things are now in terms of jobs and economy aren’t likely to be the jobs and the economy of Appalachia’s future — that transition conversations support.
A lot of work needs to be done at every level to get ready for this type of change –and it’s not the sort of thing that we can schedule on a calendar for a specific date. But taking stock of the assets we have, understanding the great resources we have in our communities and our people and envisioning how those assets could be put to use sustainably in the future is a good first step in this long-term process. Knowing what we have and thinking about how we might make use of it is essential to figuring out the collective next steps — and defining transition specifically to each community’s particular needs and wants.
It’s a slow, hard challenge before us — but if conventional wisdom IS wrong and we’re on the brink of a major shift, the change will hit us whether we’re ready or not. So, let’s get ready.
Share your stories, efforts and thoughts about how you’re working in your community to prepare for transitions in the comments section or on our Twitter or Facebook pages.
Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.