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Xstrata's Oaky Creek coal mine in Australia (Greg Bartley/Xstrata plc)
Xstrata's Oaky Creek coal mine in Australia (Greg Bartley/Xstrata plc)

Neil Reynolds

History of 'peak coal' is guide for our oil quandary Add to ...

When British economist and statistician William Stanley Jevons published The Coal Question in 1865, he was by no means the first expert analyst to anticipate "peak coal." From his review of the scientific literature, Mr. Jevons cited (among other authorities) an English mineral surveyor named John Williams ( The Limited Quantity of Coal in Britain, 1789) and a Scottish scientist named Robert Bald ( A General View of the Coal Trade, 1812) who observed succinctly that continual increases in the consumption of finite commodities must eventually end in depletion.

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By the same straightforward logic, Mr. Jevons anticipated "peak coal" - and, in doing so, "peak oil," too. For Mr. Jevons, the distinction was irrelevant. When you spoke of coal, you necessarily spoke of petroleum. When you spoke of petroleum, you necessarily spoke of coal. "What is petroleum," he asked, "but the essence of coal?"

Mr. Jevons provides the modern reader will an eerie sense of déjà vu. In the mere dawn of the Age of Coal, he writes of the debate in Britain over the next principal source of cheap energy. The alternatives are mostly the same now as they were a century and a half ago (with the single significant exception of nuclear power): water power, wind power, tidal power, solar power - "all the supposed substitutes," as Mr. Jevons expressed it, "for coal."

Mr. Jevons, however, was not persuaded. Coal itself, he said, "possesses all the characteristics that entitle it to be considered the best natural supply of motive power." Coal, he said, was like a spring - "wounded up through the geological ages for us to wind down."

In a seam of coal, he said, "we have a peculiar store of force collected for us from sunbeams." Containing light and heat, and bottled up in the earth, coal brings forth a stupendous supply of energy "to work for human purposes."

Mr. Jevons anticipated that coal's store of energy would make Britain the most powerful and the most productive country in the world. Combined with the laissez-faire economics of the Victorian Age, he predicted, coal would bring forth great scientific and cultural achievement and unprecedented prosperity.

A single pound of coal, he noted, can lift a million times its own weight- and the useful power in coal is 2,800 times the power expended in getting it to the place it could be put to work. In a word, he pronounced coal's inherent energy "incredible."

Against the simplicity and efficiency of coal, Mr. Jevons reviewed the difficulties in getting comparable energy from water or wind. He mused that a simple "wind wagon" would be the cheapest form of conveyance - if only it could be made to go in the desired direction. He cited one experimental "wind carriage" that carried 28 people and travelled "seven leagues an hour" - a league in British usage meaning 4.8 kilometres. Alas, the carriage could not be controlled. (He cited as well a certain Richard Lovell Edgeworth who apparently spent 40 years trying to perfect a wind carriage but who couldn't prevent his contraptions from trying to fly.)

So convinced was Mr. Jevons of the enduring efficiency of coal that he made a remarkable prediction. In the coming century, he said, "the progress of science and the arts will tend to increase the supremacy of coal." Using current statistics for global energy consumption, we can now determine to what degree he was right or wrong.

In 1998, oil provided 38.69 per cent of the world's energy; coal, 25.45 per cent; natural gas, 23.06 per cent; nuclear, 6.19 per cent; and hydro, 6.61 per cent. In 2008, oil provided 34.78 per cent, a decline of 3.91 percentage points; coal provided 29.25, an increase of 3.80 percentage points; natural gas, 24.14 per cent; nuclear, 6.35 per cent; hydro, 5.49 per cent.

Mr. Jevons would perhaps count oil and natural gas as components of coal. If so, "coal" provided 87.20 per cent of the world's energy in 1998, and 88.17 per cent in 2008. But, based on the trends of the past decade, coal itself will surpass oil, and become again the world's most important energy source, as early as 2015. (For further information on this analysis, check out oil industry analyst Gregor Macdonald at gregor.us/coal.)

Mr. Jevons anticipated "peak coal." For all practical purposes, though, "our mines are literally inexhaustible - we will never get to the bottom of them." The economic risk was in the higher costs of mining: "All commerce," he wrote, "is a matter of price." Yet, with fuel and fire, "everything is easy." With heat, he marvelled, you can produce cold - a reference to the "ice machines" demonstrated in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London. By using coal to make ice, he noted, "we may make fire, in the hottest climate, and produce the cold of the polar regions."

Still, knowing that Britain was running down its abundant stock of cheap coal, shouldn't Britain put a tax on coal - a carbon tax - to limit consumption and save the resource for the next generation? Mr. Jevons replied in the negative. It's not smart, he said, to tax the one thing that, above all else, sustains and propels economic growth. You would be far wiser, he said, to pay off the national debt.

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