Coal exports are a growth industry for Australia. A lot is being invested in infrastructure for coal production and transport to keep this growth going. But how long will this bonanza last? After all, there is only a finite amount of the stuff in the ground.

Earlier this year, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) released an extensive report on Australia’s energy resources. The chapter on coal included the following observation:

At the 2008 rate of production of around 490 Mt [mega-tonnes] per year the EDR are adequate to support about 90 years of production.

For those unfamiliar with the jargon of the industry,  “EDR” stands for “Economic Demonstrated Resources”, which means an estimate of the total amount of coal in the ground that we could feasibly dig up.

Now some of you may already be thinking that 90 years does not sound all that long, but there’s a problem. The authors of the report do not understand exponential growth! The catch is hidden in the apparently innocuous phrase “at the 2008 rate of production”. In other words, to come up with the 90-year figure they are assuming that production levels do not grow at all for the next 90 years. Is that reasonable?

A quick look at coal production over almost 50 years would indicate that it is far from a reasonable assumption.

Coal Production chart

Australian coal production 1961-2008

Even to the untrained eye, a growth trend is evident in this chart, a fact that is confirmed by looking at year-on-year growth, which has averaged about 5% and has only been negative three times over the whole period.

Coal Production Growth II (chart)

Annual growth in Australian coal production 1961-2008

So, where does the 90-year figure come from? According to the ABARE report, Economic Demonstrated Resources are 39.2 giga-tonnes (Gt). Add to this another 8.3 Gt of “Sub-economic Demonstrated Resources”, or SDR, (i.e. reserves that are really hard to get) gives an estimate total of 47.5 Gt for Australia’s coal reserves. Now 90 × 490 Mt (the 2008 production rate) gives 44.1 Gt, which is somewhere between EDR and the combined total of EDR and SDR. Presumably the ABARE authors are allowing for the possibility that over time it will become economically feasible to mine some of the coal that is currently classified as sub-economic.

But there is no way that 2008 production rates will be kept steady for the next 90 years. Apart from anything else, there are plenty of stakeholders in the coal industry doing their best right now to see their export business grow.

To come up with a better estimate of how long the coal might last, rather than assuming zero production growth, I will assume a constant growth rate. While the annual growth rate from 1961 to 2008 averaged 5% per annum, growth has been a little slower more recently. The past five years have seen growth average only 3.1% (presumably the global financial crisis did not help). Working with the ABARE estimate that viable coal reserves are 90 times 2008 production levels and assuming 3.1% annual growth in production, the reserves will in fact only last for 43 years! That is less than half the 90-year figure in the ABARE report and it starts to seem like an awfully short period of time. Since the working life of coal-fired power stations is typically about 40 years, this means any new power stations built today would still work out their useful life, but they could be the last ones we build and extract the full value of their potential productivity.

Of course, if the growth rate is higher, the time to deplete the reserves will be lower, as is illustrated in the table below. In fact, if production growth returns a long run average of 5%, then reserves would only last 34 years.

mule1

Reserves 90 times 2008 production

Optimists may counter that the ABARE estimates of the available reserves might be far too conservative. Perhaps there are coalfields out there just waiting to be discovered. Surely that would give us room to have coal export growth go gangbusters, wouldn’t it? Let’s see. I’ll be generous and assume that coal reserves are in fact twice as big. Running the figures again assuming reserves total 180 times 2008 production levels still means that with 3.1% annual production growth, the coal will all be gone in 60 years and if growth is 5%, it will only last 46 years.

mule2

Reserves 180 times 2008 production

Now it may be the case that climate change will trigger disasters on such as scale that in 40 years time we are not too worried about coal production, nevertheless, these basic calculations mean that some or all of the following must be true.

  • Australian coal is going to run out in around 40 years
  • The coal industry cannot continue to grow at the rate it has done over the past 50 years
  • Australian energy will be turning to coal alternatives sooner that we may expect (with or without a carbon price)

If we are going to stretch coal supplies beyond 40 years, what can slow down the need for production? With a price on carbon not looking likely to slow Australian energy consumption in the near future, one possibility would be to reduce the share of coal production that is exported and keep more of it for our own energy needs. After all, the export share has been growing quite rapidly.

Export Share II (chart)

Share of Australian coal production exported (1961-2008)

With about 66% going offshore, there is quite a bit that could be clawed back there. But who would dare suggest slowing export growth? Maybe we will just wake up one morning and discover, with a shock, that the coal is all gone and, since it is estimated that Australia has about 6% of the world’s coal reserves, the rest of the world may face the same realisation even sooner.

*Data source: ABARE (note that the 2007-08 production figures in this data set look a little lower than the 490 Mt figure quoted in the report).
**This first appeared on Stubborn Mule.

Peter Fray

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