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.
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.
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.
The result: Several score smaller companies died in 2012-2014, and then the large ones began to roll over.
- Patriot Coal, July 2012 and again in May 2015 — 12th largest US producer.
- Walter Energy, July 2015 — 17th largest US producer.
- Alpha Natural Resources, August 2015 — 4th largest US producer.
- Arch Coal, January 2016 –2nd largest US producer.
- Peabody Coal, April 2016 — The world largest non-government owned coal company.
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
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
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
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- Are 30 thousand species going extinct every year? — Spoiler: no.
- 90% of the biggest Yosemite glacier has melted. Did we do it?
- Good news about ocean acidification! Important news about science.
- Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
- Rising seas alert! Watch how science becomes a sensational news story.
An update about coal prices
Two of the key papers used in construction of the RCPs energy use forecasts are
- “International climate policy architectures:overview of the EMF 22 international scenarios” by Leon Clarke el al, Energy Economics, December 2009.
- “The Economics of Low Stabilization: Model Comparison of Mitigation Strategies and Costs” by Ottmar Edenhofer et al, The Energy Journal, January 2010.
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.