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Peak coal

Peak coal

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Peak coal is the point in time at which the maximum global coal production rate is reached, after which, according to the theory, the rate of production will enter to a terminal decline. Coal
Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure...

 is a fossil fuel
Fossil fuel
Fossil fuels are fuels formed by natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms. The age of the organisms and their resulting fossil fuels is typically millions of years, and sometimes exceeds 650 million years...

 formed from plant matter over the course of millions of years. It is a finite resource and thus considered to be a non-renewable energy source.

There are two different peaks: one measured by mass (i.e. metric tons) and another by energy output (i.e. petajoules). The energy output per mass has dropped significantly since 2000, so the energetic peak will come much sooner than the mass peak.

The estimates for global peak coal production vary wildly. Many coal associations suggest the peak could occur in 200 years or more, while scholarly estimates predict the peak to occur as early as 2010. Research in 2009 by the University of Newcastle in Australia concluded that global coal production could peak sometime between 2010 and 2048. Global coal reserve data is generally of poor quality and is often biased towards the high side. Collective projections generally predict that global peak coal production may occur sometime around 2025 at 30 percent above current production in the worst case scenario, depending on future coal production rates.

Hubbert's theory

The contemporary concept of peak coal follows from M. King Hubbert
M. King Hubbert
Marion King Hubbert was a geoscientist who worked at the Shell research lab in Houston, Texas. He made several important contributions to geology, geophysics, and petroleum geology, most notably the Hubbert curve and Hubbert peak theory , with important political ramifications. He was often...

's Hubbert peak theory
Hubbert peak theory
The Hubbert peak theory posits that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil-producing region to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve...

, which is most commonly associated with Peak oil
Peak oil
Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. This concept is based on the observed production rates of individual oil wells, projected reserves and the combined production rate of a field...

. Hubbert's analysis showed how each oil well, region, and nation has a depletion curve
Oil depletion
Oil depletion occurs in the second half of the production curve of an oil well, oil field, or the average of total world oil production. The Hubbert peak theory makes predictions of production rates based on prior discovery rates and anticipated production rates. Hubbert curves predict that the...

. However, this question was originally raised by William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons was a British economist and logician.Irving Fisher described his book The Theory of Political Economy as beginning the mathematical method in economics. It made the case that economics as a science concerned with quantities is necessarily mathematical...

 in his book The Coal Question
The Coal Question
The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines was a book by economist William Stanley Jevons that explored the implications of Britain's reliance on coal. Given that coal was a finite, non-renewable energy resource, Jevons raised...

 back in 1865.

Hubbert noted that United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 coal production grew logarithmically at a steady 6.6% per year from 1850 to 1910. Then the growth leveled off. He concluded that no finite resource could sustain exponential growth. At some point, the rate of production will have to peak and then decline until the resource is exhausted. He theorized that production rate plotted versus time would show a bell-shaped curve, declining as rapidly as it had risen. Hubbert used his observation of the US coal production to predict the behavior of peak oil
Peak oil
Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. This concept is based on the observed production rates of individual oil wells, projected reserves and the combined production rate of a field...


Peak coal for individual nations

As of 2005, the top coal-producing countries were China (44% of world production), United States (20%), India (8%), and Australia (7%). Each of these four largest coal-producing countries are experiencing significant increases in coal production.

People's Republic of China

  • Expected total peak production: 2015-2020

The People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 is the world’s largest coal extractor
Coal power in China
The People's Republic of China is the largest consumer of coal in the world, and is about to become the largest user of coal-derived electricity, generating 1.95 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, or 68.7% of its electricity from coal as of 2006...

 and has the third largest reserves after Russia and the United States. The Energy Watch Group predicts that the Chinese reserves will peak around 2015. The EWG also predicts that the recent steep rise in production will be followed by a steep decline after 2020. The US Energy Information Administration
Energy Information Administration
The U.S. Energy Information Administration is the statistical and analytical agency within the U.S. Department of Energy. EIA collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and...

 projects that China coal production will continue to rise through 2030.

United States

  • Expected total peak production: ~2150
  • Peak coal energy output: 1998

Total Mass Extracted

Coal production peaked in the early 1900s, then declined sharply during the depression years of the 1930s. Coal production peaked again in the 1940s, then declined during the 1950s. Then coal production revived, and has been on a nearly continual increasing trend since 1962, exceeding the previous peaks. Production in 2006 was a record 1.16 billion short tons. High-grade anthracite coal
Anthracite coal
Anthracite is a hard, compact variety of mineral coal that has a high luster...

 peaked in 1914; and declined from 44 million tons in 1950 to 1.6 million tons in 2007. Bituminous coal
Bituminous coal
Bituminous coal or black coal is a relatively soft coal containing a tarlike substance called bitumen. It is of higher quality than lignite coal but of poorer quality than Anthracite...

 production has also been declining since 1990. The slack has been taken up by large increases in subbituminous coal production. Comprehensive analysis of historical trends in US coal production, reserve estimates along with a possible future outlook has been recently published scientific journals on coal geology .

In 1956, Hubbert estimated that US coal production would peak in about the year 2150. In 2004, Gregson Vaux used the Hubbert model to predict peak US coal production in 2032.

Energetic Peak

Coal production in the United States, currently the world's second largest producer, has undergone multiple peaks and declines, but total coal energy output peak was reached in 1998 at 598 million tons of oil equivalents (Mtoe); by 2005 this had fallen to 576 Mtoe, or about 4% lower.


  • Expected total peak production: Sometime after 2050

Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

 has substantial coal resources, mostly brown coal, it is responsible for almost 40% of global coal exports worldwide, and much of its current electricity is generated from coal-fired power station
Coal-fired power station
A coal-fired power station produces electricity, usually for public consumption, by burning coal to boil water, producing steam which drives a steam turbine which turns an electrical generator...

s. There are tentative plans to very slowly phase out coal electricity generation in favour of gas
Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

, although these plans are still a topic of much debate in Australian politics.

Long-term plans for coal in Australia include large-scale export of brown coal to large developing nations such as China and India at very cheap prices. Other groups such as the Australian Greens
Australian Greens
The Australian Greens, commonly known as The Greens, is an Australian green political party.The party was formed in 1992; however, its origins can be traced to the early environmental movement in Australia and the formation of the United Tasmania Group , the first Green party in the world, which...

, suggest that coal be left in the ground to avoid its potential combustion either in Australia or in importer nations.

Research in 2009 by the University of Newcastle in Australia concluded that Australian coal production could peak sometime after 2050. While the Australian Coal Association (ACA) optimistically estimates that Australia's identified black coal resources could last more than 200 years based on rate of production in 2007, this does not account for brown coal stocks.

New South Wales

According to calculations conducted for the Hunter Community Environment Centre in Newcastle, the Australian state of New South Wales
New South Wales
New South Wales is a state of :Australia, located in the east of the country. It is bordered by Queensland, Victoria and South Australia to the north, south and west respectively. To the east, the state is bordered by the Tasman Sea, which forms part of the Pacific Ocean. New South Wales...

 10,600 million tonnes of coal reserves would be exhausted by 2042, based on current industry growth and production rates of about 3.2 per cent a year.

United Kingdom

Coal output peaked in 1913 in Britain at 287m tons and now accounts for less than one percent of world coal production. 2007 production was around 15m tons.


According to the Earth Watch Group, Canadian
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 coal production peaked in 1997.<-- p40 -->


Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

hit peak hard coal production in 1958 at 150 million tons. In 2005 hard coal production was around 25 million tons.<-- p42 -->
Total coal production peaked in 1985 at 578 million short tons, declined sharply in the early 1990s following German reunification, and has been nearly steady since 1999. Total coal production in 2005 was 229 million short tons, four percent of total world production.

World peak coal

  • 2150 M. King Hubbert

M. King Hubbert's 1956 projections from the world production curve placed world peak coal at 2150.
  • 2025 Energy Watch Group

Coal: Resources and Future Production<--p 7 -->, published on April 5, 2007 by the Energy Watch Group (EWG) found that global coal production could peak in as few as 15 years. Reporting on this, Richard Heinberg also notes that the date of peak annual energetic extraction from coal will likely come earlier than the date of peak in quantity of coal (tons per year) extracted as the most energy-dense types of coal have been mined most extensively.
  • Institute for Energy

The Future of Coal by B. Kavalov and S. D. Peteves of the Institute for Energy (IFE), prepared for European Commission Joint Research Centre, reached conclusions similar to those of Energy Watch Group, and stated that "coal might not be so abundant, widely available and reliable as an energy source in the future". Kavalov and Peteves did not attempt to forecast a peak in production.

  • US Energy Information Administration projects world coal production to increase through 2030.