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Heinberg’s New Coal Question

Ryan Wishart (wwishart [at] is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Oregon. He is coauthor of the chapter “Mountain Justice: A Grassroots Effort to End Mountaintop Removal,” in Transforming Places, forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.

Richard Heinberg, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2009), 208 pages, $18.95, paperback.

Coal today lies at the very center of the world predicament over the future of energy and the climate. An indication of this can be found in the November 18, 2010, issue (vol. 468) of the leading scientific journal Nature, which includes an article by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley entitled “The End of Cheap Coal.” The article opens with the startling words: “World energy policy is gripped by a fallacy—the idea that coal is destined to stay cheap for decades to come.” What follows is a short, dramatic discussion of problems (geological, economic, and environmental) constraining future coal production and consumption. Heinberg and Fridley’s argument here has been developed more extensively in Heinberg’s recent book Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis, which provides us with yet another indication of the momentous challenge and burden of our historical time.

Heinberg is best known as a peak oil theorist, but is probably better viewed in his role as a leading Green activist for a post-carbon world. His newest book (following Blackout) is The Post-Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises (co-edited with David Lerch), the contributors to which include such leading environmental thinkers/activists as Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, and William Rees.

The most serious carbon issue today, as scientists like NASA’s James Hansen emphasize, is not oil but coal. To avert a disastrous climate change tipping point, Hansen argues, peak oil must be accompanied by peak coal, and in fact coal-fired plants must be rapidly phased out to protect the earth.1 Yet coal exploitation is commonly presented by the vested interests as a solution to energy scarcity. Indeed, some, such as James Fallows in the latest issue of Atlantic Magazine, even promote the erroneous idea that “clean coal” (an oxymoron) will save the earth from climate change!2

Heinberg wades deeply into these issues in his book, focusing on estimates of coal reserves and of peak coal production. He concludes that there is far less energy to be had from world coal reserves than is typically thought by policy makers. Yet, as Hansen has stressed (and Heinberg acknowledges at one point), the greatest immediate threat from coal is not its scarcity but its consumption, which threatens to push the climate past dangerous tipping points. Though the ecological considerations of coal are, unfortunately, something of a secondary consideration in Heinberg’s book—he is perhaps too directly concerned with the issue of peak coal rather than how this fits into climate change—there is nonetheless much that is important in Blackout, for those who see climate change and ecological crises more generally as our most pressing planetary problems.

Heinberg rightly rejects the notion that fossil fuel scarcity, on its own, will solve climate concerns as “a dangerously premature conclusion” (119). Rather, the peaking of oil production is likely to drive more production of increasingly carbon-intensive and toxic fuels. “In general, human society faces a conundrum: unless non-fossil sources of energy are developed quickly, or unless society finds a way to operate with much less energy, the depletion of higher-quality fuels (natural gas and oil) will mean that efforts to obtain more energy will entail burning ever dirtier fuels in proportionally larger quantities in order to derive equivalent amounts of energy. The answer to the question, “Will coal, oil, and gas depletion solve climate change?” is therefore an unequivocal “No” (122). Ultimately, Heinberg recognizes that the issue is a political one.

The longer we pursue energy from coal instead of committing to renewable energy and reduced energy consumption, he emphasizes, the worse will be the economic and ecological costs and the less likely such a transition will be successful. For Heinberg, “Blackout” refers to the possibility that our current squandering of energy resources (even setting aside the effects of climate change) presents the possibility of catastrophic, and effectively permanent, ecological-economic collapse. Perhaps the worst weakness of his book is to confuse the nature of this collapse: is it peak energy or climate change that is the real issue? The main strength of Heinberg’s book, however, is its succinct packaging of complex technical and economic reports and their implications for the economic and logistical challenges posed by dwindling coal reserves. Although I would have liked to have seen more systematic attention to ecological problems caused by coal production as well as consumption, his overall analysis is to be commended for placing front and center the impossibility of maintaining the increasing energy demands characteristic of capitalism.

William Stanley Jevons’s famous “Coal Question” raised the paradox that greater efficiency in coal use was, in turn, overtaken by the expansion of coal consumption. This paradox became an essential premise in asking what Britain should do about the pending scarcity of its primary energy source.3 For a time, new fossil fuels and a global economy made the scarcity issue (though not the paradox) moot. Yet, in Heinberg’s book, it may be seen that the world now faces a New Coal Question: How to leave coal in the ground when our economic system insatiably demands energy in order to meet its demands for perpetual growth? As Hansen and others have proposed, the projected peaking of oil and gas production presents the opportunity to stay below the critical tipping point of 350 ppm carbon dioxide—if we can stop the increasing release of this greenhouse gas from coal and other, unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands. However, Heinberg and other environmentalists must come to realize that an answer to this question necessarily cuts to the heart of capitalist accumulation, class domination, and global imperialism.

Peak Oil and Peak Coal

Heinberg proposes that in understanding potential scarcity in both coal and oil supplies the real concern is when production will peak. As with oil, prediction of when coal production will peak is difficult to determine with any precision. Coal production estimates are closely determined by the extent and fashion in which coal will be used in the future as a substitute for oil and gas.

Coal varies greatly in quality. Anthracite and bituminous coal are the most energy-dense coals, followed by sub-bituminous and then lignite. Heinberg stresses that some studies find that bituminous production in the United States has already peaked, and that the peak for all grades of coal will come between 2030 and 2035. As the higher-quality coal reserves are exhausted, both ecological as well as economic costs increase because greater volumes must be extracted, processed, transported, and burned to meet demand for the same amount of energy, reflecting the fact that lower-quality forms of coal will be brought into production. In terms of ecological economics, this entails a decrease in energy return on energy invested. Because there is less energy per ton as quality declines, energy from coal will peak more rapidly than tonnage, and potential greenhouse gas emissions increase more rapidly per unit of energy.

This is not a problem confined to the United States, which has some of the world’s largest reserves. After reviewing recent estimates of global coal reserves and production trends, Heinberg concludes that many, if not most, nations’ coal reserves are currently overestimated. This is partly due to the misleading common method of describing fossil fuel reserves in terms of reserves over current production rates—as in the U.S. Energy Department’s assertion that the United States has a two-hundred-year supply of coal. Heinberg says that such estimates are “always wrong” because of three basic factors.

First, rates of consumption vary over time with the tendency being to increase. Second, as the most accessible and high-quality reserves tend to be exhausted first, maintaining current levels or increasing production becomes more and more difficult. Third, what counts as a reserve changes with new discoveries and variations in the cost-effectiveness of available extraction methods. While the third factor may increase reserves when new deposits are found or better methods of extraction are developed, the first two factors contribute to production peaking faster than the rate implied by the “reserve over current production” description. In actuality, new discoveries have not increased projected reserves. Heinberg emphasizes that most new studies of known coal reserves since 1986 (excluding India and Australia) have downgraded the amount of coal believed to be minable.

Higher oil and natural gas prices are often projected to increase demand for coal and make profitable the mining of reserves currently considered uneconomical. Heinberg warns that, though higher energy prices will likely boost the price of coal, “The cost of producing coal is related to the price of oil. Consider the case of Massey Energy Company, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company, which annually produces 40 million tons of coal using about 40 million gallons of diesel fuel….If the price of diesel goes up one dollar, this translates directly into $40 million in increased costs; indirectly related costs also climb” (40). As other fossil fuels become more expensive, building new coal plants and transport systems and running those transport systems will become increasingly expensive, thereby making energy from coal more expensive as well. Transportation costs in particular are one of the main obstacles to scaling up coal production and consumption.4 This is already a problem for deposits in the western United States, northeastern China, and northern India.

The coal industry hopes that new technologies will secure the future of its investments. Processing coal into liquid fuel is often proposed as a solution to higher prices for other transportation fuels. Heinberg claims, “From an energy standpoint, the process only makes sense if liquid fuels are at a premium for qualities other than their energy content, because coal turned into electricity at high efficiency will power electric vehicles three times as far as liquid fuel made from an equivalent amount of coal will push a combustion vehicle” (134). Aircraft are one such an example, and the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense are currently investing in “coal to liquid” plants. However, each plant will cost as much as an aircraft carrier and use a similar amount of steel. Because the high cost of such plants, relatively few private companies are pursuing them, although some governments are, with China moving the quickest and on the largest scale. However, coal to liquids incur additional ecological costs beyond higher carbon emissions. China’s Coal Research Institute has estimated that 360 gallons of increasingly scarce fresh water will be required to produce each gallon of coal-to-liquid fuel (59).

For electrical power generation, the favored prototype is integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) facilities. These power plants can burn coal more efficiently, and can potentially create a number of useful byproducts (e.g., synthetic oil), while improving capture of toxic pollutants such as mercury and—crucially for climate concerns—carbon dioxide (the disposal of which presents a separate problem). But Heinberg cautions that these plants are more expensive, possibly much more so, and their environmental benefits are uncertain. The existing plants in the United States have cleaned up air emissions at the price of greater water pollution. State investigations by Delaware and Minnesota have concluded that proposed plants would not reduce pollution. If carbon capture and storage (CCS) is attempted, costs will rise significantly higher.

Coal and Climate

If, as Heinberg’s review of the literature suggests, high-quality coal reserves are closer to depletion than commonly assumed, then the carbon footprint of increased coal consumption will be nonlinear and grow far more rapidly than coal’s relative share of the energy supply. The problem of the increased transportation emissions from the higher volumes needed to compensate for lower energy content is further aggravated by the geography of supply. As deposits closest to demand centers are exhausted first, a greater volume of coal must also be transported greater distances.

Of course, the greatest impact of coal’s carbon footprint is coal’s burning for electrical power generation, and it is this stage of the fuel cycle that has received the most attention. Yet, despite the Obama administration’s and the coal industry’s emphasis of CCS as a remedy for coal’s climate liabilities, Heinberg is cautionary for a number of reasons. First, CCS technologies are unlikely to be developed enough to deploy before 2035 at the earliest. Second, the CCS process inevitably consumes a portion of the energy produced at a plant. Three general types of CSS are reviewed, each with its own limitations. Mineral-based methods are the only category with no chance of failure resulting in the later release of the gas. Trapping the carbon in the ocean, in addition to having the greatest chance of failure, would likely produce serious ecological effects, as the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide has already added to the ocean’s acidity, endangering ocean ecosystems. Heinberg finds the mineral method of CSS unlikely due to cost. He also finds that, simply to capture 60 percent of emissions, ocean or geologic storage would require the liquefaction and transport of a volume of carbon dioxide, in the United States alone, equivalent to total U.S. oil consumption, or about twenty million barrels a day. On a global level, it has been estimated that liquid carbon dioxide equal to twice the volume of world oil flows would have to be managed simply to capture one fourth of emissions.

Though the engineering challenge and financial cost of such an undertaking at the point of consumption is staggering, it is crucial also to consider the increasing spatial and qualitative barriers to scaling up and extending coal production.

Coal is a lower quality fuel in the best case, and [the United States] is being forced to use ever lower-quality coal. Just to offset the declining heating value of US coal while meeting Energy Information Administration forecasts for electricity demand growth by 2030, the nation will then have to mine roughly 80 percent more coal than it is currently mining. If [CCS] and other new technologies for consuming coal are implemented, they will increase the amount of coal required in order to produce the same amount of energy for society’s use, since the energy penalty for capture and sequestration is estimated at 40 percent. (52)

While, setting ecological and social impacts of extraction aside, it is possible the United States could double or perhaps even triple coal production to meet this demand, qualitative decline and peak production would be moved forward that much faster. As distant and lower-quality deposits are brought on line, the carbon impacts from the energy used in extraction, deforestation associated with surface mining, and energy use in transportation would also increase accordingly.

A limitation of the book, perhaps understandable given Heinberg’s primary focus on energy scarcity and secondary focus on climate, is that the treatment of non-carbon-related ecological problems associated with coal use is sparse and anecdotal. There are examples: the current watershed destruction by mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, the potential disruption of Siberian indigenous groups by surface mining, water consumed by coal-processing technologies, or the huge amounts of processed coal waste accumulating in South Africa. But these social and ecological costs, unfortunately, are not given the kind of systematic treatment that economic costs are in examining the possible futures of coal production.

Heinberg notes that in Russia, “expansion of mining in Siberia will entail horrific environmental costs. Surface mining would result in deforestation or would disrupt environmentally sensitive tundra; meanwhile indigenous peoples throughout the sparsely populated region—which is already hard-hit by the effects of climate change—would be displaced or would suffer further degradation of their fragile ecosystems” (80). Reading this, I could only wonder what cumulative effects an increase in the surface-mining-dominated production that he describes elsewhere would have.

Even expanded underground production can have surprising extraction-related ecological costs. The wantonness of China’s underground coal production creates a shocking greenhouse contribution from the extraction process itself: “Uncontrolled underground coal fires, some of which will burn for decades, have become an enormous environmental problem in China, consuming an estimated 200 million tons of coal annually—an amount equal to 10 percent of the nation’s coal production.…China’s underground coal fires make an enormous hidden contribution to global warming, annually releasing 360 million tons of carbon dioxide—as much as all the cars and light trucks in the United States” (56).

Searching for Answers to the New Coal Question

Unfortunately, an underlying weakness in his analysis is revealed when Heinberg turns his attention to primarily political-economic questions such as: “Will climate concerns succeed in driving policy in the face of energy scarcity?” (123). Heinberg warns that policy makers, unlike activists and scientists, “may look at the evidence through a different lens—one that discounts the future in favor of the present….Hagens argues that discount rates are based in fundamental human psychology, and perhaps even hardwired into our genes and nervous systems” (123).

Sadly, Heinberg uncritically adopts this treatment of the discount rate as a reflection of human nature rather than examining it as a particularly well nurtured and institutionalized feature of capitalist society. Not being a political economist, Heinberg should perhaps be forgiven for this; after all, his conclusion—that we must be wary of crises resulting from energy scarcities (such as those likely with the peaking of oil production) derailing political efforts to cope with climate change—is certainly well taken. Likewise, his suggestion of rationing fuels rather than emissions is amply supported and worth consideration.

However, his mistaking of both the underlying social problem (capitalism) and of the most imminent ecological problem (climate change and not peak energy) is characteristic of his approach. In the conclusion of the book, addressing possible futures, three scenarios are presented, with the effects of climate change in each largely ignored (for the sake of simplicity). The first two, in which energy from coal continues to be relied on for economic growth, are distinguished by whether “clean coal” (i.e., IGCC) and CCS are pursued. Both scenarios end in catastrophe and the collapse, between 2030 and 2040, of whole civilizations. The third “post carbon transition” scenario is meant to provide a vision for a sustainable society. Here we see that, for Heinberg, like so many Green thinkers, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Lacking a framework with which to analyze the structural connections between economic power and political decisions, in Heinberg’s post-carbon future revolutionary changes simply and inexplicably happen. Heinberg appeals for a shift to the “new economic paradigm” laid out in Herman Daly’s work on steady-state economics. Yet, in the process, he ignores (to a greater extent than Daly) the barrier that capitalism poses to such a future. As Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster have noted, “There is, however, one slight problem with this ‘capitalist no-growth utopia’: it violates the basic motive force of capitalism….A stationary state, or steady-state, economy as a stable solution is only conceivable if separated from the social relations of capital itself.”5 Without an understanding of these social relations, Heinberg is left to explain political failures as reductionist “human nature,” warning of reactionary responses to mass suffering under higher energy prices, and hoping for political foresight and planning, without any firm basis for how to achieve such a revolutionary divergence from our current trajectory.

Heinberg proposes a transition in which “the primary financial stakeholders in society—including weapons manufacturers, banks, and fossil fuel companies—are engaged in the transition rather than marginalized, as otherwise they would likely derail the effort” (162). Yet how and why these companies would be convinced to adopt policies focused on human needs within the limitations of a “steady-state” contrary to their current reasons for existence—profits and growth—is left a mystery, as is the political force causing nations to abandon imperialism in favor of cooperation.

Still, what is compelling about Heinberg’s flawed argument is his sense of the real urgency of the modern “coal question”:

It may be tempting to think of coal as a transitional energy source for the next few decades, while a longer-term energy strategy emerges. But in that case an important question arises: Will there be sufficient investment capital and technical resources in three or four decades to fund the transition to the next energy source, whatever it may be?…The transition if deferred will thus be more expensive and difficult than it would be now. Indeed, the longer a transition to an ultimate (and sustainable) energy source regime is put off, the harder that transition becomes.(53)

For those committed to preventing ecological disasters associated with climate change, the effects of declining coal reserves—and the shift to lower-quality coal that this entails—are important to consider in light of both their ecological and economic consequences. From this standpoint, environmentalists such as Heinberg, concerned primarily with anticipating and planning for the peaking of fossil fuels in a way that avoids ecological catastrophe and allows for continued human development must come to recognize that: “Faced with limited natural resources, there is no rational way to prioritize under a modern capitalist system, in which the well-to-do with their economic leverage decide via the market how commodities are allocated.”6

Contrary to Heinberg’s best wishes, war profiteers, Wall Street, and Big Oil cannot simply be presented with a rational plan and be expected to comply. Building a political movement broad and inspiring enough to tackle the New Coal Question on a platform of social justice requires gaining democratic control of government, industry, education, and media messaging. This means directly challenging the dominance of capital in each sphere. Blackout offers scholars and activists an overview of projections on future coal production and their complexities, but social movements will need to look elsewhere for what is to be done about the historical burden of our coal question. The question of a post-carbon future is inextricably connected to the question of a post-capitalist future.


  1. James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 174-78.
  2. James Fallows, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” The Atlantic, December 2010.
  3. See John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 169-81.
  4. Stephen G. Bunker and Paul S. Ciccantell, Globalization and the Race for Resources (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005) offer a more detailed argument on the importance of the contradictions posed by economies of scale around production and diseconomies of space around transport in the capitalist world system.
  5. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism,” Monthly Review 61, no. 10 (March 2010): 1-30.
  6. Ibid.
2011, Volume 62, Issue 08 (January)
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