The US has less coal than we thought

That rumble you feel under your feet could be the shifting supply of the nation's coal and natural gas. Today, The Wall Street Journal [subscription] reported that a new methodology for estimating our coal reserves has cut the amount of retrievable coal in the U.S. in half. At the present rate of consumption, this would deplete our domestic supplies by 2130. Much of the coal that had been included in previous estimates was deemed too expensive to ever mine commercially.

Just last month, however, we learned that a new natural gas supply, the Haynesville Shale, has been discovered in Louisiana that could yield 200 trillion cubic feet or more of gas. That deposit alone equals 33 billion barrels of oil, enough to replace 18 years of domestic oil production. Added to other new gas finds, the U.S. now has in excess of a 100 year supply at our present level of consumption.

This is good news for the environment, since natural gas burns with little carbon dioxide emission. The drop in coal reserves is not necessarily good news for greens, however, if it bolsters support for the controversial mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal mining, In which the caps of mountains are removed to gain access to the coal beneath, has become an environmental furnace of controversy. The EPA under Obama has given the go-ahead to two dozen such projects, pending final approval by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. While mountaintop mining uses less labor than subterranean mining, in a time of scare employment the administration seems reluctant to shut down these operations, especially ones with union crews. And since much of our country still depends on coal to fuel its electrical plants, and switching to alternate fuels will take decades, coal will remain king for many years to come.

I admit to a healthy skepticism about the timing of the coal reserve calculation change. It comes just at the time the administration needs to justify its pro-mining decisions. Perhaps its time we hit the gas on our nation's electricity production.

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