June 26, 2008

It's going to get burnt anyway

It's pretty safe to say that Dr. James Hansen is not my favorite scientist. But I do find myself in curious agreement with one part of his recent testimony and DC talking tour, that we're not going to stop oil from getting burnt anytime soon. "Practically, I don't see how we can stop putting the oil in the atmosphere, because that's owned by Russia and Saudi Arabia" he said and there's a great deal of truth to that. The second part of his idea is that we could stop coal use, "what we could do is stop the coal" in his words. That's nonsense on stilts. The same problem, that the fossil fuel is under the control of countries not much interested in sacrificing energy use for the prevention of global warming is just as much a problem for coal as for oil. Wikipedia's got the stats. They don't paint a picture of a world where we could "stop the coal".

The US controls 256 billion tons of coal in proven reserves. The next three reserve leaders, Russia, the PRC, and India control 157, 114, and 92 billion tons respectively for a total of 383 billion tons and none of these three are any more likely to stop mining coal than Saudi Arabia is likely to stop pumping oil.

The PRC is currently pulling coal out of the ground at better than twice the US rate (2300 v 1000 million tons per year) and will not exhaust its reserves for half a century. Russia is mining more sustainably. It's reserves will last centuries at its 300 million ton rate. India's extraction rate of 450 million tons will exhaust their reserves in two centuries. So even if we stop mining entirely, coal will not be stopped. It will not even be significantly ameliorated as mining elsewhere will likely pick up as coal prices rise. We'll just have swapped our well regulated coal plants for 3rd world coal plants that, on balance will be dirtier.

Now Hansen is obviously not stupid and the necessary numbers to demolish his claim are publicly available and easy to get at. So why did he spout such nonsense? It's difficult to say why. Maybe he just didn't think things through. Maybe he wanted to inject a note of sanity into environmentalism by getting them to swallow the idea that oil control is impossible and he's just letting others take the reputational hit for extending the logic out to other energy sources. Maybe he really does think that we can control coal mining in a way that we can't control oil drilling. Essentially the choices are thinking that Hansen is outrageously sloppy, breathtakingly cynical, or economically ignorant.

Not a pretty picture.

Posted by TMLutas at June 26, 2008 07:06 AM