Thoughts on the CEA ‘peak coal’ report

I recently had a call from a reporter at the Boulder Daily Camera. He was seeking comment on a just-published Clean Energy Action (CEA) report that argues American coal production has already peaked and that American coal producers were facing an impending and unavoidable decline.

Rather than 200+ years of reserves, CEA’s authors argue that the United States has as little as twenty years of coal reserves remaining. While I was talking with the reporter, I Googled this group’s name and quickly found that (by their own admission) they were a ad hoc collection of environmental activists with a clearly stated bias against the development and use of fossil fuels. Furthermore, the majority of CEA’s staff write that they have been employed by/consulted for, or have lobbied for the solar industry.

I have already published numerous articles on the inability of the solar industry to compete on a level playing field, as well as renewable energy’s own slate of environmental impacts that they will soon need to address, so I don’t need to rehash that issue in this post. However, my response to the Daily Camera reporter was captured pretty accurately—I could hear his keyboard clicking away as I said it.

Jason Hayes, associate director of the American Coal Council, had never heard of Clean Energy Action prior to Wednesday. After studying its website, he concluded that it was a group of “solar energy activists.” “I’m not at all surprised that they’re promoting solar energy at the expense of another energy resource,” Hayes said. “They’re just playing the market, the same as any other player in the market system. They are trying to sell a product.” He said the American Coal Council is confident there exists an economically viable 200-year supply of coal. “Yes,” he said, “I’m going to trust the EIA (Energy Information Administration) and the Department of Energy before I trust a group of solar activists.”

Of course it isn’t hard to see why I concluded that CEA is a group of solar activists, they openly state as much in their staff bios. So, my comment remains. I’m not at all surprised to see that a group with strong financial ties to the solar industry and even stronger ideological ties to the environmental movement is attacking coal in an attempt to prop up solar energy.

Of course my comment to the Daily Camera was made after only having a few short minutes to “study” their website, and I had not had time to review their research or scholarship. Despite having financial ties to a competing industry, CEA researchers could have chosen to employ rigorous scientific and statistical methodologies to make their point. However, after having a little bit more time to review and discuss the report with colleagues, I have to admit that their work comes off as simplistic and flawed. The report is transparent example of decision-based evidence making as CEA has a clearly stated goal of “accelerating the transition to the post-fossil fuel world by designing and implementing strategies for use at the local, state and national levels.”

So bluntly stating an ideological bias against the use of fossil fuels on the first page of their report calls into question the rigor of the work to follow. Sadly CEA researchers continued with their lackadaisical approach by cherry-picking data, such as the time line for their review. Choosing 2007 as their peak year and pretending that a decline in coal production the following year was a result of peaking coal reserves completely ignores the reality of one the largest recessions in U.S. history – which just happens to have occurred at the same time. Comments on the report by the National Mining Association makes the very pertinent point that coal production has increased each year since 2008. If coal production had indeed peaked as the CEA staff claim, production would continue to decline, or at the very least, level out.

As our colleagues at the NMA also noted, we agree with the researchers at CEA that rising electricity prices are a serious concern. However, direct subsidies of more costly energy options and the unreasonable regulatory agenda being pursued by the federal government will have far greater upward pressure on prices than CEA’s unsubstantiated fears.

Far more rigorous research completed by the EIA has described a more than 200 year supply of currently accessible coal in the United States. In fact, the US hold approximately 29% of the world’s coal reserves, meaning there is more energy in the coal in the United States than the energy held in all the oil in the Middle East.

The peak coal theory makes for interesting headlines, but it is not a solid foundation for our nation’s energy policy.

04. November 2013 by Jason Hayes
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