Coal Explained – How Much Coal Is Left

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There are several measures of how much coal is left, based on various degrees of geologic certainty and economic feasibility. Published data range from how much is left at currently producing mines to total coal resources, which is an estimate of how much coal is likely to exist, both currently known and that which is postulated based on geological principles. The major measures are described below.

Coal reserves at producing mines

Each year the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) obtains the amount of “recoverable reserves at active mines” from its annual Coal Production and Preparation survey. These are the amounts of coal that can be recovered from reserves at active U.S. coal mines that produced at least 25,000 short tons of coal during the reporting year, or 10,000 short tons of coal for anthracite mines.

As of January 1, 2012, the recoverable reserves at producing mines were 19.2 billion short tons. (One short ton is 2,000 pounds.)

The amount of coal reserves at producing mines, however, is a small part of the total amount of coal that exists in the United States.

So how much coal is there?

It is impossible to know exactly how much coal there is, because it is buried underground. But we can make estimates.

  • Total resources” is our best estimate of the total amount of coal, including undiscovered in the United States. Currently, total resources are estimated to be about 4 trillion short tons.1 Total resources includes several categories of coal with various degrees of geologic assurance and data reliability.
  • But not all coal is feasible to mine. The Demonstrated Reserve Base2 is the sum of coal in both measured and indicated resource categories of reliability, representing 100% of the in-place coal that could be mined commercially at a given time. EIA estimates the Demonstrated Reserve Base to measure 483 billion short tons.
  • Estimated recoverable reserves” include only the coal that can be mined with today’s mining technology, after accessibility constraints and recovery factors are considered. EIA estimates there are 259 billion short tons of U.S. recoverable coal reserves, about 54% of the Demonstrated Reserve Base.

Based on U.S. coal production for 2011, the U.S. estimated recoverable coal reserves represent enough coal to last 236 years. However, EIA projects in the most recent Annual Energy Outlook (April 2013) that U.S. coal production will increase at about 0.2% per year for the period 2011-2040. If that growth rate continues into the future, U.S. estimated recoverable coal reserves would be exhausted in about 194 years if no new reserves are added.

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There are different types of coal

There are four major ranks (types) of coal. In the United States, coal rank is classified according to its heating value, its fixed carbon and volatile matter content, and, to some extent, its caking properties during combustion. The coal ranks from highest to lowest in heating value are:

  • Anthracite
  • Bituminous
  • Subbituminous
  • Lignite

Types of coal in the demonstrated reserve base

Of the four ranks, bituminous coal accounts for over half ( 53.1%) of the Demonstrated Reserve Base (DRB). Bituminous coal is concentrated primarily east of the Mississippi River, with the greatest amounts in Illinois, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

All subbituminous coal ( 36.5% of the DRB) is west of the Mississippi River, mostly in Montana and Wyoming.

Lignite, the lowest-rank coal, accounts for about 8.8% of the DRB. Lignite is found mostly in Montana, Texas, and North Dakota.

Anthracite, the highest-rank coal, makes up only 1.6% of the DRB. Anthracite is concentrated almost entirely in northeastern Pennsylvania.

What are international coal resources?

Worldwide, compared to all other fossil fuels, coal is the most abundant and is widely distributed across the continents. The estimate for the world’s total recoverable reserves of coal as of January 1, 2009 was 948 billion short tons. The resulting ratio of coal reserves to consumption is approximately 129 years, meaning that at current rates of consumption, current coal reserves could last that long.

The distribution of world coal reserves varies from oil and natural gas

Significant coal reserves are found in the United States and Russia, but not in the Middle East. In fact, the United States and Russia account for nearly half of global coal reserves as shown in the table below. In contrast, oil reserves are predominantly found in the Middle East and Canada, while Russia, Iran, and Qatar own more than half of the world’s natural gas reserves.

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