Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future

By Lisa Abbott

In Wednesday’s edition of the journal Nature, an article by authors Richard Heinberg and David Fridley declares that “energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future” and points out that global coal reserves may run out faster than many believe.

“World energy policy is gripped by a fallacy — the idea that coal is destined to stay cheap for decades to come. This assumption supports investment in ‘clean-coal’ technology and trumps serious efforts to increase energy conservation and develop alternative energy sources.”

Globally, projected supply has been dropping at a rate faster than consumption for several decades. That’s an indication that the official projections offered by many countries aren’t accurate; when those projections are updated, they are most often being revised downward.

“Better data on global coal supplies is long overdue and energy policies that assume a bottomless coal pit need rethinking urgently.”

The article points out that official estimates of US coal reserves have not been updated since 1974, and US coal production peaked in the 1990’s.

The authors cite a number of recent studies that predict global coal production will peak within the next two decades and then enter a period of steep decline.

“The inevitable result of soaring demand and dwindling supply will be rising coal prices globally, even in nations that are currently self-sufficient in the resource.”

That scenario has important implications for the debate here at home over whether to invest in expensive schemes like carbon-capture and storage or multi-billion dollar plants to transform coal into liquid fuel. Those technologies are already challenged by high costs and the fact that they would consume massive amounts of additional energy just to operate. If the fuel source itself is constrained and increasingly expensive, then those types of investments make less and less sense.

The authors conclude, “Nations should immediately begin to plan for higher fossil-fuel prices and to make maximum possible investments in energy efficiency and renewable-energy infrastructure.”

Note: (Unfortunately, this article is available through a paid subscription only. For a sizeable fee I got access to the full article today. For this reason I have included extensive quotes in the post above. You can get to a abstract of the article by going here: and typing in this code: 10.1038/468367a, but it costs $32 to read it in full.)

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.