Mining the Past

Coal has a history. In synergistic symbiosis with steel-making and steam engines it fuelled the industrial revolution. Replaced slavery and became the dominant economic industry on the planet for a few decades.
In the present coal appears to be dying. The bankruptcy of Peabody energy, the last big private coal producer in the US and the conviction of Blankenship, a mine owner for a mining disaster are events that could never have been imagined during the days of King Coal.
Does coal have a future? Or under the influence of campaigns like the coal disinvestment movement will it be relegated to a small scale resource, exploited for its local convenience and no longer exist as a major player in the global energy markets?


There is a pattern of coal production, consumption and subsequent shrinkage, a peak that has past, in all the advanced western economies. Starting in the UK coal production expanded rapidly as the demand for it as the fuel for steel making drove improvements in mining and transport of coal that used the new steel production and made it available to fuel domestic and industrial power needs. in the UK production peaked around the turn of the last century. By the 1920s the need for oil to power navel and military might. That has shaped the geo-politics around the sources and consumers of liquid fossil fuels ever since.

So there is an economic and logistical inevitability about the historical rise and fall of coal. It is rooted in the historical contingency of its initial exploitation then the replacement with oil as an exploitable resource with similar functions but superior characteristics. The pattern for UK production is –

This is being followed apparently by the US

Add to this the recent outgrowth of the campaign for fossil fuel and specifically coal disinvestment and it is tempting to see a narrative of coal reaching the end of its century rise and fall as a significant contributor to the accumulating atmospheric concentration of CO2.
For all those persuaded that such climate changing CO2 increases are potentially damaging to the civilisational infrastructure we have at present, the story of the demise of a major contributor to atmospheric modification looks like good news.

But even with the influence of the worlds’ largest sovereign wealth fund. Norway has set aside the harvest from oil in the ‘good’ years and uses that money for centrally planned ‘good works’. I suspect that being persuaded to avoid investment in certain enterprises by the Green lobby does not make the underlying economic model of the Norway fund any more acceptable to those who follow a libertarian economic free market model.

However it appears that their fears are probably misplaced. The disinvestment movement has very little direct economic impact. Any influence it does have is in altering the public acceptability of certain investment choices on a larger scale. In the days when most industrial speculative investment was by governments and banks this might have had some effect. But the present world economy relies much more on private investment from hedge funds and shell companies (possibly in Panama or the BVI). Such private investment, invisible to public scrutiny, is a symptom of the return to the ‘Gilded Age’ wealth distribution of the fin de siècle era. It also insulates financial business from public and political scrutiny making it much harder to regulate or control.

The BRICS could be seen as following the western pattern of coal use, but a few decades behind. The reality of coal production and consumption is not that it is fading, but that it has increased by around 50% in just the last 20 years. Almost all of this the rise is the result of the massive increase in the production and use in China. That is the inevitable result of vastly expanding the amount of power available to a very large population. The use of coal to achieve this massive improvement in the standard of life for a significant proportion of the global population is a pragmatic result of the simple logistical and technical requirements. If you can build your power stations next to an open cast mine with long established engineering and infrastructure designs then large scale electrical power generation can be achieved quickly and cheaply.

India and the South American economies may be headed for a similar trajectory as China. Their production is certainly ramping up

But there are alternatives. China has at least acknowledged the unviability of long-term and expanding coal use and may already be constraining the rate of growth if not reversing the use of coal for energy generation. New generation is focused on renewable and nuclear power with the intent to reduce coal fired systems, not just add to them.

Cost competitive systems in India may allow the complete omission of the coal stage in bring power to the people, although that depends on choices made about the form of the economy and infrastructure that delivers power and too which people.

There is a need from the risks deducible from our best understanding of climate change to avoid burning as much coal as possible. It is the least good fossil fuel, however easy it may be to exploit in the transition from agricultural to industrial. There is a possibility of avoiding much further coal use, it really could die in the next few decades, with fossil free alternatives providing comparable power at better prices.

But there is a problem. The availability of a resource tends to influence the likelihood it will be used rather more than any considerations about the dangers or longer term effects of resource exploitation. The tragedy of the Commons is only one example. Recent surveys have updated the potential coal reserves. The US has long been thought to have the most, but that might be the result of the most prospecting/surveying. Now there are discoveries of vast undersea reserves in the UK, bigger than expected fields in S E Asia and S Africa .
None would be easy to exploit. At least not without remote autonomous robot drone miners…

Perhaps we should regard these other coal reserves as a long term insurance policy. It is possible, even likely that our present and future modification of the climate will prevent the slow slide into an ice-age in 35-40 kyrs. But that would have been a relatively shallow and short glacial period. Our influence on the climate has been estimated to have largely faded by 60,000 years time, so when the next big glacial period is due, ~110kyrs, all that coal may still be available to geoengineer the climate!



3 responses to “Mining the Past

  1. UK coal decline was more of a political issue, with Thatcher using North Sea Oil as a weapon against the far left miners union.


  2. UK peak coal was around 1902. There was a brief revival during WW1, but a rapid decline thereafter. The
    Thatcher coal decline was a mere acceleration of an ongoing process, and in retrospect could be a prescient attempt to stop coal as a climate mitigation effort.
    The destruction of the most powerful force in organised labour was just a side benefit.


  3. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Britain’s electricity was generated 29% by coal in 2014, down from 67% in 1990. Despite my own background in the coal industry, I have no particular emotional attachment to the stuff. One day, no doubt, a power source will be developed which is as cheap, ubiquitous and accessible to developing populations as coal, yet without the attendant environmental concerns. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but don’t you suspect the powers that be would do all they can to prevent such a thing happening?


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