Oil is the most critical fossil fuel for modern economies, underlying everything from transportation to manufacturing. In 2004, the world consumed about 80 million barrels of oil each day, about 30 percent of which came from the Middle East. The world is not going to run out of oil anytime soon, but it might run out of cheap, easy-to-get oil. As that happens, prices are likely to spike, fundamentally disrupting major parts of the worlds economy. You dont have to buy into the apocalyptic scenarios that some doomsayers predict the collapse of industrial society, widespread famine to see that the end of cheap oil is going to inspire panic and economic chaos as the world scrambles to find a replacement energy source.
The situation with natural gas is not much better. In the United States, consumption of natural gas, which is mostly used for home heating and the manufacture of industrial products, as well as agricultural fertilizers and chemicals, has jumped by about 40 percent in the past two decades. About 85 percent of that gas came from domestic sources, but production in the United States has been flat for several decades, leading us to import more and more from Canada, where production is also beginning to peak. There are still substantial reserves in places such as Russia and Qatar, but the global shipping and trading infrastructure is woefully undeveloped. Upgrading it will cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete. Not surprisingly, natural gas prices have tripled in the past few years and caused home heating bills to rise rapidly in many regions of the country.
What about the other alternatives? Nuclear power can be used to generate electricity, but no new plants have been built in America in thirty years. This is primarily because nuclear plants are still haunted by the ghosts of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, as well as unresolved problems of radioactive waste. Even if the social and environmental hurdles could be overcome, nuclear plants are so expensive to build that a major resurgence is unlikely. And as much as we would all like to imagine we could live in a world powered by solar panels and wind turbines, these alternative energy sources are not yet capable of powering our high-tech economy.
Out of this, coal has emerged as the default fuel of choice. Coal has a number of virtues as a fuel: it can be shipped via boats and railroads, its easy to store, and its easy to burn. But coals main advantage over other fuels is that its cheap and plentiful. There are an estimated 1 trillion tons of recoverable coal in the world, by far the largest reserve of fossil fuel left on the planet. And despite a run-up in coal prices in 2004 and 2005, coal is still inexpensive compared to other fuels. In a world starved for energy, the importance of this simple fact cannot be underestimated: the world needs cheap power, and coal can provide it.
America is literally built upon thick seams of coal. Just as Saudi Arabia dominates the global oil market because of the geological good luck of having more than 20 percent of the worlds oil reserves, the United States is a big advocate for coal because it has the geological good luck of having more than 25 percent of the worlds recoverable coal reservesabout 270 billion tonsburied within its borders. As coal industry executives never tire of pointing out, this is enough coal to fuel America at the current rate of consumption for about 250 years. To put the size of its bounty into perspective, consider this: all of western Europe has only 36 billion tons of recoverable coal. China has less than half as much as the United States 126 billion tons. India and Australia, both big coal burners, have even less than China. The only country with reserves that come close to Americas is Russia, with 176 billion tons, but much of that coal is in remote regions and difficult to mine. Not surprisingly, coal boosters often refer to America as the Saudi Arabia of coal.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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