The end of cheap easy coal?

As one mile-long sets out to deliver coal to a distant power plant, five more wait in the queue at the siding at Wright, Wyo., just south of Gillette. Photo/Allen Best

As one mile-long sets out to deliver coal to a distant power plant, five more wait in the queue at the siding at Wright, Wyo., just south of Gillette. Photo/Allen Best

200 years of coal in the U.S.? Or is 20?

New studies predict imminent end of cheap coal from the Powder River and other coal basins in the United States

by Allen Best

A decade ago, it was hard to imagine a future without coal. Burning it generated more than half of U.S. electricity. Wind, solar and other renewables required generous subsidies to compete. Natural gas was in decline.

And, we had 200 years supply, right? That’s what the U.S. Energy Information said, and the figure was frequently cited. It still is.

Leslie Glustrom has spent the last several years researching U.S. coal supplies. Her conclusions are that while we may have enormous quantities of coal, extracting it is a very different proposition. Instead of 200 years, she finds “maybe” 20 years for significant amounts of coal production at low prices.

“This is great for the planet, but lousy for our country,” said Glustrom at a Nov. 19 presentation in Denver, referring to the greenhouse gas emissions created by burning coal.

The coal companies have blamed environmental regulations, pointedly blaming President Barack Obama for economic troubles. In a presentation in Denver in Nov. 19, Glustrom identified another cause: basic geology.

“This is really about geology,” she said. “You could make a coal company president of the United States and it would not make any difference, because (the decline of coal will be) driven by geology.”

Glustrom, a global warming activist and analyst from Boulder, Colo., has documented production from the various coalfields in the United States. The high-quality anthracite coal is mostly gone. Colorado’s high-quality bituminous coal is mostly tapped out. In Appalachia, peak production occurred in 1947 and not even mountain-top removal has restored production levels.

Rise of the Powder River

Part of that decline in Appalachia is due to air-quality rules, particularly the 1990 Clean Air Act revisions crafted to address acid rain. High in sulfur, a key constituent in acid rain, Appalachian coal lost favor, despite its proximity to big coal-burning plants of the East.

The big winner from the acid-rain fallout was Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Its sub-bituminous coal is low in sulfur and close to the surface in giant seams that are sometimes 200 feet thick, allowing easy removal after the earthen overburden has been removed.

Little mining was done there before about 1970. That changed as the nation’s array of coal-fired power plants rapidly proliferated. To deliver coal to them, Burlington Northern and other railroads beefed up their rail. In the early 1970s, I spent a summer working on one such rail-upgrade project in eastern Colorado. The 90-pound-per-foot rail was replaced by 136-pound rail, able to accommodate much heavier trains.

Overburden can be stripped form above coal seams relatively easily now in the Powder River Basin, but the the seams trend downward. Photo/Allen Best

Overburden can be stripped from above coal seams relatively easily now in the Powder River Basin, but the the seams trend downward. Photo/Allen Best

When I finally visited the Powder River Basin in 2011, I observed what has been described as a conveyor belt of coal. At Bill, the hamlet just south of Gillette, the 110-car trains rumble continually, one after the other, on their way to Texas, Mississippi and even Florida. Idling on the siding were five trains. The Powder River that year supplied 40 percent of the nation’s coal while also expanding exports to China.

Will this easy flow of coal from Wyoming continue? Glustrom argues not. Removal is already becoming more difficult and expensive as mines must remove ever-greater amounts of overburden. That overburden currently ranges from 50 to 200 feet; future surface mining will require removal of 750 to 2,250 feet of overburden, she says.

“This card has already been played, and we don’t get to play it again,” she says of the easily mined coal.

She projects a 20-year supply of easily available surface mining from the Powder River; other projections see 40 years. Given how much our electrical production comes form coal plants, even the longer estimate poses major questions about our energy future.

Alternatives to strip mining

Nobody seems to dispute Glustrom’s basic argument. The coal seams dip as they move northward. She cited a 2007 U.S. Geological Survey report that concluded that 70 percent of the coal in the Powder River Basin is not surface accessible.

In this existing technology, the giant drag-lines look like giant long-necked dinosaurs on the prairie landscape, efficiently clawing the coal into trucks and then the conveyor belt of railroad cars at the Black Thunder, Wyodak, and other mines.

Alternatives exist, but with less efficiency. Underground mining is far more expensive. In places, experiments in underground combustion are being conducted. Just as improvements in hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling have allowed drillers to extract natural gas from geologic formations economically off-limits in prior decades, technology could allow greater ability to extract the 200 years of coal supplies at relatively low prices.

Even now, coal has become steadily more expensive. Across the United States, U.S. coal costs have increased an average 7.7 percent a year from 2004 to 2012. During that span, cost increased from $1.341 per million Btu, a measure of energy, to $2.43 last year.

The Energy Information Agency sees coal maintaining a sturdy position in the U.S. economy. But many energy analysts have found the agency’s projections consistently rose-tinted. Glustrom pointed to EIA projections for coal prices for several decades that show that prices have always been higher than what the EIA projected.

Coal production in the United States has dropped from a peak in 2008. Obviously, the Great Recession explains at least part of that drop-off. So, too, does the abundance of low-priced natural gas. Too, dozens of coal-fired power plants have been retired, and in recent weeks the Tennessee Valley Authority, which uses both coal from Appalachia but also coal from Wyoming, announced it would retire six coal-fired power plants. In the last decade, only three new coal-plants have gone on line – one of them in Colorado.

Stranded asset?

The Comanche 3 power plant near Pueblo, Colo., began operations in 2010.

The Comanche 3 power plant near Pueblo, Colo., began operations in 2010. Photo/Allen Best.

Glustrom opposed that Colorado coal plant, the Comanche 3 project at Pueblo. It was built primarily by Xcel Energy with participation of two electrical cooperatives, Intermountain and Holy Cross Energy. Glustrom defies the more mainstream environmental activists in opposing it without condition.

In a sense, she’s still fighting that fight. That investment, she argues, will be seen as a blunder as operating costs rise, in large part the result of escalating prices for coal.

Meanwhile, the cost of renewables continues to drop. David Eves, the president of the Public Service Company of Colorado, the division of Xcel responsible for Comanche 3, told a wind industry audience in October that utility-scale solar is now cost competitive.

But Comanche 3 is intended to operate at least 60 years. Glustrom’s study questions the availability of coal for it and the other expensive infrastructure of power plants and railroads to deliver it.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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