The world’s biggest coal reserves

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

22 thoughts on “The world’s biggest coal reserves”

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. “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)?

  5. 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.”

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.”

  12. Sarah,

    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.

  13. 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.”

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

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