Good news! Coal bankruptcies point to a better future for our climate.

Summary: The bankruptcy of the world’s largest non-government-owned coal company illustrates one of the two big weaknesses in the nightmarish climate change scenario that dominates the headlines. It takes us even further off the path to the RCP8.5 scenario behind those stories, onto one going to a far better future.

Clean Energy. CEA image

Climate forecasts (called “projections” by the IPCC) rely on two key factors. First, the scenario — a forecast of future emissions, must be accurate. Second, the model must accurately predict temperatures for that scenario. Previous posts have shown climate scientists’ reluctance to test their models using the decades of data after their publication. Recent events highlight that the second factor is also important.

The nightmarish predictions of climate change that dominate the news almost all rely on the most severe of the four scenarios used by the Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC’s most recent: RCP8.5. It describes a future in which much has gone wrong (details here), most importantly…

  • a slowdown in tech progress (coal is the fuel of the late 21st century, as it was in the late 19thC), and
  • unusually rapid population growth (inexplicably, that fertility in sub-Saharan Africa does not decline or crash as it has everywhere else).

Looking at such scenarios, however unlikely, is vital for planning. Sometimes we get unlucky. But presenting such outcomes without mentioning their unlikely assumptions misleads readers and puts the credibility of science itself at risk. Which is climate science today.

Why burning coal might become as common as burning cow dung

Coal is dirty and dangerous to mine, moderately expensive to transport (by train or barge), and dirty to burn. When natural gas prices drop below $3 per thousand cubic feet (i.e., per 100 thousand BTU), coal becomes uneconomical. In 2002 much of the US coal industry was sliding to bankruptcy. It was rescued by the energy boom, which produced fracking — which crashed natural gas prices and trashed the coal industry. In a Sept 30 report Moody’s analyst Anna Zubets- Anderson said that half of the world’s coal production is uneconomic at then-current prices (gated report; news story). Now 90% of US coal production is uneconomic vs. natural gas.

Natural Gas Prices in the US

Will coal be the fuel of the future? Growth in output from renewable energy sources and a crash in natural gas prices (from fracking) have sent a long and growing list of coal companies to bankruptcy court as both prices and volume tumbled.

Decline in US coal revenue by type of coal
From VOX, 13 April 2016.

The result: Several score smaller companies died in 2012-2014, and then the large ones began to roll over.

US coal production in 2015 dropped 18% from that of 2011. US coal mines were running at 70% of capacity (before closings, which were substantial and increasing). After each bankruptcy coal mining capacity drops as unprofitable and marginal mines are closed. Once the miners leave an area and rail lines to the mine are removed (the land is often valuable), reopening mines range from difficult to almost impossible.

The climate change difference: shifting from coal to natural gas

Sources of US electric power
From EIA, 16 March 2016.

The US crash in coal has largely resulted from a shift to natural gas. From 1970 to 2007 the annual production of natural gas in US was roughly 20 trillion cubic feet; since then it has risen to 29 trillion in 2015 (per EIA). The EIA predicts that in 2016 we’ll burn more natural gas than coal.

Does this make a difference to climate change? Yes! Burning coal to produce a million BTUs of energy produces an average of 210 pounds of CO2; burning natural gas to do so produces 117 pounds of CO2 (coal produced and CO2 emitted per EIA) — a reduction of 45%!

More competition for coal lies ahead

Tri Alpha Energy Fusion reactor
Tri Alpha Energy’s fusion device.

A host of new energy sources are under development. Improvements in solar, wind, and geothermal — plus potentially larger innovations in nuclear and fusion. For example, Tri Alpha Energy has raised over $150 million in private capital — from people looking for a profit in the near future (not in 2100) — to fund its 150 employees and the many patents they have filed. Here’s a presentation from 2012 describing their device, and an August 2014 article from Science about the project — and the accompanying video…


The horrific coal-burning late 21st century described by RCP8.5 provides a valuable warning that we have to push technological progress for any hope of a better world. Representing it as a “business as usual” future is absurd — and materially misleading. But doing so has become business as usual for climate scientists and journalists — as documented here. That this scam has persisted so long is not surprising for journalists, but shows a deep dysfunctionality in climate science.

We can force reforms. We can end the climate policy wars: demand a test of the models.

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about doomsters, about fear (perhaps become our greatest weakness), and especially about the stories that shape the public’s views…

An update about coal prices

Two of the key papers used in construction of the RCPs energy use forecasts are

Note the forecast of oil and coal costs in the second paper. It was run using historical data through 2000. Oil is tracking their forecast. But coal has already diverged quite radically, collapsing while they expect an increase.

2010 - Coal Price Forecast

14 thoughts on “Good news! Coal bankruptcies point to a better future for our climate.”

  1. More studies rebut climate change consensus amid government crackdown on dissent“, Washington Times, 10 April 2015 — Opening:

    “The latest government crackdown on climate dissent, exemplified by last week’s subpoena of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, comes amid a surge of scientific research that pokes holes in the catastrophic climate change consensus. Even as Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude E. Walker demanded the free market think tank’s climate research and communications, a rising tide of evidence has challenged the narrative that increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are driving floods, drought and other disasters.”

    1. Dick and Kathy,

      I suggest finding more reliable sources than the Washington Times.

      (1) Actions by the Virgin Islands attorney general aren’t usually headline news.

      (2) The basket of studies referred to are business-as-usual and show that climate science is working. Most of these papers challenge the alarmists’ warnings about climate change, but not the actual consensus described in the IPCC’s reports (although the former has almost replaced the latter in the news).

  2. I would argue that not only testing the models with original data would help, but also transparency into the model construction, data collection and data “adjustments” would be a huge step forward. The “adjustments” are simply way to suspicious to avoid an investigation.
    WUWT does a good job exposing the temperature “adjustments.” Be sure to read the comments for some lively discussion.

    1. Co2,

      I agree that more transparency is needed. When asking for public policy actions involving trillions of dollars and perhaps changes to our economic system, the process must be like “Caesar’s wife” (i.e., above suspicion).

      I give little credence to the concerns raised in those WUWT posts. They are, however, the natural response to an insufficiently transparent process.

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