In Good Company: A Look at Global Coal Reserve Revisions

In my last post, I recounted some of the indications that have surfaced over the last decade that US coal reserves might not be as large as we think.  The work done by the USGS assessing our reserves, and more recently comments from the coal industry themselves cast doubt on the common refrain that the US is “the Saudi Arabia of coal” and the idea that we have a couple of centuries worth of the fuel just laying around, waiting to be burned.  As it turns out, the US isn’t alone in having potentially unreliable reserve numbers.  Over the decades, many other major coal producing nations have also dramatically revised their reserve estimates.

Internationally the main reserve compilations are done by the UN’s World Energy Council (WEC) and to some degree also the German equivalent of the USGS, known as the BGR. Virtually all global (publicly viewable) statistics on fossil fuel reserves are traceable back to one of those two agencies. For instance, the coal reserve numbers in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) 2011 World Energy Outlook came from the BGR; the numbers in BP’s most recent Statistical Review of Energy came from the WEC.

Of course, both the WEC and the BGR are largely dependent on numbers reported by national agencies (like the USGS, the EIA and the SEC in the case of the US), who compile data directly from state and regional geologic survey and mining agencies, fossil fuel consumers, producers, and the markets that they make up.

Looking back through the years at internationally reported coal reserve numbers, it’s surprisingly common to see big discontinuous revisions.  Below are a few examples from the WEC Resource Surveys going back to 1950, including some of the world’s largest supposed coal reserve holders.  In all cases, the magnitude of the large reserve revisions is much greater than annual coal production can explain.

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Has Rosling on Data Journalism and Visualization

A long format talk by Hans Rosling at the Open Knowledge Festival, on the importance of not just liberating public data, but also using it to weave engaging stories for the public about the facts of the world as we know it exists today.  It does no good to allow students to debate why women in the Muslim world have more children than elsewhere, because it isn’t true.  Sweden still sends foreign aid to China, even though China just bought Volvo.  People think that 30% of our power comes from wind and solar, because wind and solar grew 30% last year.  Why don’t more activists demand good data?  Why don’t they use it to build fact-based cases for their causes, instead of seeking out only the data that confirms their pre-existing ideologies?

Note: Rosling’s talk begins at 35 minutes into the archived video stream.

CO2 is not on the world’s dashboard

Hans Rosling, world famous Swedish statistical edutainer, offers some thoughts on the importance of timely and transparent reporting of CO2 emissions.  We all know (whether we want to or not) exactly how this thing called GDP is doing, quarter by quarter, but on greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a year long lag.

2011 Wind Market Report from LBNL

Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has put out a report on the state of the wind energy industry, as of the end of 2011.  I didn’t realize that the price trend had been so uneven over the last decade.  The cost of wind power was dropping in the early 2000s, and then rebounded, peaking in 2008/2009 due to shortages in the turbine supply chain, before again dropping in the last year or two.  I started looking into these prices because I’m reading a Renewable Energy Policy by Paul Komor (2004) and the prices he quotes ($40-$50/MWh) seem low, relative to the numbers from Xcel’s ERP and the recent bids I saw in Michigan (more like $60/MWh), but the book was written right at the wind price bottom.  I’m also shocked at how wide the spread in costs is, even in just the last couple of years.  California is paying $100/MWh for huge projects, and in the wind belt some projects are coming in more like $25/MWh.  That’s got to be largely policy driven, and it indicates we’ve got a woefully inefficient market for wind.

Timelapse Arctic Icebound Eyes

The human timescale isn’t appropriate for climate change.  We can’t see it minute to minute.  Day to day.  Year to year.  Like watching an analog clock, you never see the hands move, and yet time passes.  We need more time lapse eyes.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder automatically generates this plot of arctic sea ice extent (and many others) every day:

It’s probably not horrifying unless you’re a geoscientist.

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