Monday, June 8, 2009

"We really can't say we're the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore."

That’s the message from Brenda Pierce, head of the U.S. Geological Survey team that found that the U.S. coal reserves are probably about half of what they were previously thought to be.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer likes to use that phrase when talking about Montana's vast coal reserves, such as in this 2007 Time magazine piece:

"Now here's how Montana is going to save the world," [Schweitzer] proclaimed at one point. "We are the Saudi Arabia of coal," he said...

But is that characterization of Montana's--and the nation's--coal reserves accurate? Not according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal (you have to be a subscriber to read the full article).

Basically, here’s the gist:

George Warholic calculates America's vast coal reserves the same way his predecessors have for decades: He looks up the prior year's coal-reserve estimate, subtracts the year's nationwide production and arrives at a new official tally.

Coal provides nearly one-quarter of the total energy consumed in the U.S., and by Mr. Warholic's estimate, the country has enough in the ground to last about 240 years. A belief in this nearly boundless supply has led officials to dub the U.S. the "Saudi Arabia of Coal."

But the estimate, recent findings show, may be wildly overconfident.

While there is almost certainly as much coal in the ground as Mr. Warholic's Energy Information Administration believes, relatively little of it can be profitably extracted. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey completed an extensive analysis of Wyoming's Gillette coal field, the nation's largest and most productive, and determined that less than 6% of the coal in its biggest beds could be mined profitably, even at prices higher than today's.

"We really can't say we're the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore," says Brenda Pierce, head of the USGS team that conducted the study.

According to scientists, carbon dioxide emitted from coal-fired power plants is the leading contributor to global climate change. (A sobering note on that point: A new study by the USGS found Antarctica’s ice shelves are disappearing faster than previously thought.) That’s why lawmakers in Washington are busy working on new federal carbon legislation. Congress is likely to pass cap and trade legislation in the next year or so, and that in turn is likely to increase the cost of coal production and consumption even more.

Coal’s future seems to be getting darker by the day.

On the upside, as coal becomes more expensive to burn, Montana could end up faring better than other coal-producing states because we have another abundant source of energy in Big Sky Country: wind.

According to National Wind, “America's leading large-scale community wind project developer,” over two thirds of Montana has excellent wind resources for the development of utility scale wind projects.

Perhaps in the future Montana will be dubbed "the Saudi Arabia of wind."Oooh....I should trademark that. Shoot. It looks like T. Boone Pickens already beat me to the punch.

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