The world’s biggest coal reserves


in Science, The environment

In the absense of effective and affordable carbon capture and storage, coal has no future compatible with a stable climate. Eliminating conventional coal plants and preventing the construction of new ones is thus an important front in the effort to fight climate change.

To get a sense of where to concentrate that effort, it is worth examining where the world’s biggest reserves of coal actually are:

  1. The United States – 242.6 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) – 28.6% of the global total
  2. Russia – 157 gigatonnes – 18.5%
  3. China – 114.5 gigatonnes – 13.5%
  4. Australia – 76.5 gigatonnes – 9%
  5. India – 56.6 gigatonnes – 6.7%
  6. South Africa – 48 gigatonnes – 5.7%

According to the Energy Information Administration, burning one tonne of coal produces between 1.40 and 2.84 tonnes of carbon dioxide. That means that burning all these reserves would add between 973 and 1,974 gigatonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. By comparison, the total quantity of human emissions to date is about 488 gigatonnes.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah November 13, 2008 at 6:33 pm

How are ‘reserves’ measured here? Is the extraction cost relevant to the estimation? Is it possible that there are large ‘unknown’ reserves?

Milan November 13, 2008 at 7:10 pm

I am having trouble finding the original website where I got these numbers, but they are quite close to the ‘Proved recoverable coal reserves’ in this Wikipedia entry.

“At the end of 2006 the recoverable coal reserves amounted around 800 or 900 gigatons. The United States Energy Information Administration gives world reserves as 998 billion short tons (equal to 905 gigatons), approximately half of it being hard coal…

The 998 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves estimated by the Energy Information Administration are equal to about 4,417 BBOE (billion barrels of oil equivalent).”

It makes sense that more coal is available at higher prices than at lower ones. I am not sure about the economic assumptions that go into these estimates.

Milan November 13, 2008 at 7:17 pm

This previous post is related: How much carbon dioxide can we release?

Based on a climatic sensitivity of 4.5˚C (at the high end of the probable range estimated by the IPCC), humanity can emit a further 1776 gigatonnes of CO2 between now and when the world becomes carbon neutral.

Burning 50% of the remaining coal in the United States and China would emit between 250 and 507 gigatonnes. Burning 50% of the world reserves we believe to exist would emit between 1120 and 2556. With data on how much coal is of which type, a more precise estimate could be made.

tristan November 13, 2008 at 8:05 pm

“According to the Energy Information Administration, burning one tonne of coal produces between 1.40 and 2.84 tonnes of carbon dioxide.”

Why can burning a set amount of coal produce different amounts of CO2? Is it because the coal is not entirely burned in some cases? is it because the coal might have a high mineral content which doesn’t burn (low grade coal)?

. November 13, 2008 at 10:27 pm

Carbon Dioxide Emission Factors for Coal
B.D. Hong and E. R. Slatick

(This article was originally published in Energy Information Administration, Quarterly Coal Report, January-April 1994, DOE/EIA-0121(94/Q1) (Washington, DC, August 1994), pp. 1-8.)

“The (arithmetic) average emission factors obtained from the individual samples (assuming complete combustion) confirm the long-recognized finding that anthracite emits the largest amount of carbon dioxide per million Btu, followed by lignite, subbituminous coal, and bituminous coal. The high carbon dioxide emission factor for anthracite reflects the coal’s relatively small hydrogen content, which lowers its heating value. In pounds of carbon dioxide per million Btu, U.S. average factors are 227.4 for anthracite, 216.3 for lignite, 211.9 for subbituminous coal, and 205.3 for bituminous coal.”

. November 14, 2008 at 1:00 am

Breaking: EPA Kills US Coal Plants

By Kevin Grandia on utah coal plant

Wow. A decision by the Environmental Protection Agency today has ruled that all new and proposed coal-fired power plants must have their carbon dioxide emissions regulated.

What this means is that 30 permits for new coal-fired power plants in the seven state directly regulated by the EPA’s permitting process, plus projects on all Indian Reservations will immediately die because of this ruling.

Here’s the official statement from Sierra Club on the decision.

And here’s the official ruling by the Environmental Appeals Board (PDF).

. November 14, 2008 at 11:32 am

Breaking News: No new coal plants without “Best Available Control Technology” for CO2

A legal bombshell has been dropped that may well stop all new coal plant permitting: The Sierra Club has won the Bonanza case at the EPA Environmental Appeals Board.

You can read the landmark ruling here (and full Sierra Club press release below):

“… we remand the PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) Permit U.S. EPA Region 8 issued to Deseret Power Electric Cooperative for its proposed new waste-coal-fired electric generating unit at its existing Bonanza Power Plant. On remand, the Region shall reconsider whether or not to impose a CO2 BACT limit in the Permit. In doing so, the Region shall develop an adequate record for its decision, including reopening the record for public comment….”

The Board notes that “this is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding. The Board suggests that the Region consider whether interested persons, as well as the Agency [EPA], would be better served by the Agency addressing” this issue.

. November 14, 2008 at 11:53 am

Is that a Bonanza in your docket?
EPA board freezes construction of new coal-fired power plants in U.S.
Posted by Kate Sheppard at 3:18 AM on 14 Nov 2008

In a major win for environmentalists, the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board handed down a landmark decision on Thursday that essentially puts a freeze on the construction of as many as 100 new coal-fired power plants around the U.S.

It will now be up to the Obama administration to develop rules on carbon dioxide emissions from such plants.

R.K. November 14, 2008 at 2:30 pm

In a way, it is good that the US has the biggest reserves.

Given the way the political winds are blowing, there is some reason to hope they won’t burn or export it all.

Sarah November 14, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Excellent news about the EPA ruling, which will hopefully translate into no new coal plants for a long time (given the lack of CCS technology at present).
If these are economically recoverable reserves then I can’t help but wonder how China’s continued development will affect their figure: for instance, the astonishing toll in human life in their coal mines implies the need for far better safety & regulation which might significantly increase the cost or make some coal unrecoverable.

. November 14, 2008 at 3:40 pm

China pays high environmental and social price for reliance on coal
Pollution, emissions and mining accidents cost £160bn each year, say Greenpeace, WWF and energy campaigners

Tania Branigan, China correspondent, Monday October 27 2008 13.16 GMT

“China’s main source of power is so destructive that its social and environmental impact costs £160bn annually, warns a new report from green campaigners.

The country is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, relying on it for more than 70% of energy production, compared with a global average of around 40%.

The True Cost of Coal, published by Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and The Energy Foundation, says by-products ranging from water pollution to mining deaths cost China an additional 1.7 trillion yuan, or more than 7% of annual GDP.”

Milan November 14, 2008 at 4:22 pm


I am also optimistic about the eventual consequences of the EPA ruling, though it is possible the next administration will fold and choose a weak “Best Available Control Technology” standard. Mandating CCS would be almost certain to kill the industry, at least in the medium term.

As for the economics of coal retrieval, it definitely makes sense to consider the estimates above as rough figures, rather than ones likely to be accurate. That is because of the possibility of new discoveries and technologies, as well as changes in technology or legal and social conditions that cannot be appreciated.

The biggest lesson to draw from the numbers above is that burning most of the world’s coal will almost certainly produce a temperature increase of more than two degrees Celsius, even before any additional feedback effects (such as permafrost melting) are taken into account.

. December 1, 2008 at 3:51 pm

Will coal usage be phased out?

“In this post I summarize the climate policy scenarios of the World Energy Outlook 2008 in which coal usage is stabilized and ultimately phased out. A scenario that would render the question of coal availability useless if it becomes reality. According to the IEA a combination of energy saving policies, a large expansion of Nuclear and Renewable energy, as well as a large scale implementation of carbon capture and storage at coal and gas power plants are necessary to achieve stabilization of CO2 in the atmosphere between 450 and 550 parts per million, and the ultimate phase out of coal. The question of coal availability will be analyzed in a follow up post.”

. December 12, 2008 at 5:14 pm

Coal is abundant in America, and in many countries around the world. The amount of coal that can be mined at a competitive price in the U.S. is currently estimated at about 265 billion short tons. This is evenly divided between low-sulfur coal in the West (100 billion tons), medium-sulfur coal in the West and Appalachia (80 billion) and high-sulfur coal in the Midwest and Appalachia. Underground mining is required for about two-thirds of U.S. coal reserves; the rest can be surface mined.

Annual coal production is projected to remain around 1 billion tons into the next century. At a steady rate of use, our coal won’t be depleted for 265 years. At a rate of growth of only two percent per year, however, this depletion occurs after 93 years. At a growth rate of 3 percent, it happens at 73 years.

. January 8, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Are we approaching peak coal? Part 1

The imminent reality of peak oil production should be clear to all by now (see “Normally staid IEA says oil will peak in 2020“).

Now some very serious people are suggesting that there is a lot less accessible coal out there than most folks believe. If we are nearing peak coal (and peak oil), then we would need to embrace the rapid transition to a clean energy economy almost as urgently as we need to embrace it to avoid destroying the climate.

Milan April 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm

For $850, the Canadian Mint has a gold coin commemorating coal mining.

. November 4, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Tuesday, November 03, 2009
We’re Number One!

The U.S., that is, in total fossil fuel resources. At least those were the findings of the Congressional Research Service in a report they just released:

U.S. Fossil Fuel Resources: Terminology, Reporting, and Summary

The primary reason is our huge coal reserves. While we are 12th in oil reserves (Table 5 of the report), our coal reserves are by far the largest in the world. All together, the fossil fuel reserves (oil, natural gas, and coal) of the U.S. are reported at just under one trillion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE). The global total is reported at 5.6 trillion BOE.

. November 30, 2009 at 12:30 pm

“And many of these states depend on coal, the dirtiest commonly-used fuel. Hydropower-blessed California gets only 1% of its electricity from coal; West Virginia gets 98%. Five states get more than 90% of their electric power from coal, and half get more than half.

Zain.ul.Abidin May 2, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Most Recently discovered “Thar Coal Reserves” in Pakistan are now world’s largest coal reserves which are approximately 850 Trillion Cubic Feet. In energy terms these are more than the collective oil reserves of Saudi Arab and Iran who have World’s largest & Second Largest Oil reserves. Chinese Companies have completed feasibility report and is going to start mining there soon.

Usman ur Rehman Ahmed March 31, 2011 at 10:35 pm

To further explain the claim Zain made above, relative to your original post units, Pakistan is on #2 since it has 175 Billion Tons of Coal in Thar.

More details can be found here,

. November 25, 2012 at 4:32 pm

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal and holds an estimated 14 per cent (third largest behind the US and Russia) of the world’s total coal reserves. In 2008, 71 per cent of China’s energy consumption was sourced from coal, equivalent to almost half the world’s coal consumption

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