Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Australian Coal: Harbouring Resources.

It is easy to make predictions as to the likely lifetime of resources, e.g. oil, gas, coal and uranium. However, looking at the situation in the round, obscures the fact that the World's energy resources are unequally distributed. This much is obvious really: we are well aware that the Middle East is amply provided for by oil, while Russia has most of the natural gas reserves. The UK is in a far less abundant position that it was, and a few years ago it became a net energy importer, having got through much of the cornucopia of North Sea oil and gas. There is still a lot of oil and gas under the North Sea, but we can no longer produce their resources in sufficient amount to match our current energy demand, and hence we are and will forever be dependent on securing and maintaining good trade relations with those countries that can provide them to us, increasingly from politically unstable regions of the world.

Among the non-renewable resources is coal, and whereas oil and gas will be in very short supply within the coming few decades, there is thought to be enough coal to last for hundreds of years. The UK reached its peak of coal production in 1913, and while it is estimated that there are 1.5 billion tonnes remaining and accessible within current mining infrastructure, far more is thought to exist under these islands, and under the North Sea, possibly to the tune of 190 billion tonnes, albeit that a highly extensive and completely new infrastructure of mines would need to be dug in order to access it.

Meanwhile, the UK imports most of its coal, getting through somewhere over 60 million tonnes per year - 40 million tonnes imported, mostly from Germany - and 10 million tonnes each from near-surface and deep mines in the UK. There are some alarm-bells sounding that the world may have less of the hard, anthracitic (>90% carbon) coal that is cleaner to burn in terms of SO2 pollution etc., and which can most readily be converted into synthetic "oil" by coal-liquefaction methods, than was once estimated at 10 trillion tonnes, but it is still thought that 4 trillion tonnes or so are available which is enough to go round for a while yet, albeit acknowledging that the resource is not evenly distributed.

Australia has lots of coal, and is the world's leading coal exporter; however, only 4% of the world's total of coal in fact passes through Australian ports, for the simple reason that a relatively minor proportion of coal is traded - most coal is used practically at source; China being a very good example, which produces 80% of its total energy from coal, most of that mined on Chinese territory. However, in the interests of averting climate change, Australia is being urged to end coal exports. It is of interest to know what proportion of global CO2 emission can in fact be blamed on coal exported from Australia: the answer is a frugal 1.3%! Other countries import Australian coal either because they have little domestic reserves, or because their own supplies are brown-coal which is unsuitable for steel-making. Indeed, over half of exported Australian coal is used for making steel rather than firing power stations.

Japan, Korea and Taiwan are the biggest consumers of Australian coal, and the industry generates $24 billion in export income annually, which is more than the nation's wool, wheat, copper, dairy, beef, wine, and gold exports altogether. The industry employs 130,000 people, who's livelihoods would be compromised if it were to be curtailed. It is true too, that other countries, notably South Africa, Indonesia and Russia would certainly provide the resource of coal that Australia had denied them, so it would make very little difference to overall world CO2 emissions.

There are possibilities, not only for Australia, for CO2 capture technologies, but these are estimated to consume anywhere up to half the power-output of a conventional power station, meaning that an extra power station would need to be built for every new one installed, to cope with the CO2 emissions of both. There are cleaner combined cycle plants, which can produce synthetic oil as well as electricity, and recover almost 60% of the thermal energy from the coal, rather than around 35% - and hence, throwing two-thirds of it away - as conventional coal-fired power plants do.

To my mind, the whole matter of curbing exports of energy resources raises a frightening scenario. If those countries that are rich in their resources, especially oil and gas, decide to hold onto them for their own use, or to flex political muscles against other countries whose resources are limited, then the latter will be in an extremely disadvantaged situation - industrial powers held under siege and starved of the energy to run their societies. Since supplies of oil and gas are highly limited, with conventional oil expected to begin to run-out as from any time now, and gas within a couple of decades of that (or less, if it used to extract oil from tar-sands, or liquefied in gas-to-liquids processes for that same purpose of supplanting failing oil supplies), the seats of world power can be expected to shift significantly over the coming 10 - 20 years. I would predict that Russia will become very powerful on the world stage, weighing-in against the giant mass of its resources, while the US which now has to import two-thirds of its oil (mostly from Canada, but also from the Middle East) will turn to make its own provisions from the massive reserves of coal that lie under its extensive land area - thought to amount to more carbon than the total oil reserves of the Middle East.

The resources of European countries are varied and it is to be hoped that all nations will be provided for in a "common market" of resources, but an ever increasing amount of gas and all the uranium for nuclear power actually comes from Russia/Kazakhstan. In any event, consolidation of energy resources will prove to be the fulcrum of changing world-order, even if more wars will be fought to that end.

Related Reading.

1 comment:

Coal said...

The call to reduce the use of coals is valid for western countries but unfortunately, coal statistics show developing economies are more likely to increase their use of coal in coming years because of its affordability and to meet increasing demands for electricity and steel for the coal industry.