The Peak in U.S. Coal Production
As many people with even a casual interest in energy now know, natural gas supplies in the United States are very tight and will most likely become worse due to mature gas reservoirs no longer being able to meet demand. The National Petroleum Council (NPC), an industry organization established by the U.S. Interior Secretary in 1946, announced in a September 2003 report that U.S. and Canadian gas production has "plateaued" and that North America will no longer be self reliant in meeting its gas needs.1 There currently exists only one source of proposed salvation for meeting American gas demand, and that is importing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from other countries such as Oman, Qatar, or Algeria. There is currently a large effort in this nation to rapidly increase LNG imports but safety and environmental concerns are greatly slowing down this effort. In addition, competition for LNG from Japan, Europe, India, and China may very well limit the amount we can ultimately obtain.
The oil situation may turn out to be just as bad, if not worse. Studies conducted by petroleum geologists such as Colin Campbell2 and L.F. Ivanhoe3 suggest that conventional oil production will peak sometime before 2010. While this claim was at first ignored by most mainstream media, it can't be ignored any longer. Petroleum prices have reached record highs; oil production has peaked in individual countries including the U.S., Britain, and perhaps Oman; and it's now commonly recognized that Saudi Arabia is the only country claiming excess production capacity. Ever-increasing numbers of former skeptics agree that oil production may peak during this decade.
We live in a world that was built and is sustained by inexpensive, readily available fossil fuels. Fossil energy powers our delivery vehicles and all of our farm machinery, it pumps water to our homes, it produces nearly all of the products that we call chemicals. In short, without fossil fuels our civilization cannot exist as we currently know it. Figure 1 shows the percentage of various energy sources used to run American civilization from 1920 to 2002. It can be easily seen that natural gas, petroleum, and coal make up the vast majority of American energy demand and that as petroleum and gas consumption have risen or fallen, coal has done the inverse. This is because coal is the only real alternative for gas and oil. Some might argue that there could be other sources of energy and they would be right but we are simply not ready for them.