Caltech prof David Rutledge’s “peak coal” argument is getting a lot of traction of late, and came up in a discussion on twitter this morning. The question was posed: if Rutledge is right, does this mean greenhouse gas regulation is not needed? Rutledge, in a talk two years ago here in Albuquerque, said the answer is “no.”. Here’s how I summarized (adwalled):
Most energy experts argue that Earth’s vast reserves of coal could last for centuries, which is one reason advocates of action on climate change have focused on policies aimed at reducing coal use. But Rutledge, who makes his prediction based on historical decreases in coal production, argues that coal supplies may simply run out, solving the problem through shortage.
That does not diminish the importance of searching for alternative energy sources like large solar plants, Rutledge said. Whether they are needed to reduce climate change or to replace fossil fuels when we run out, they will still be needed, he said.
He also argued that simply burning up all the fossils fuels we have might cause unacceptable climate change, and there could be benefits to setting aside areas of land as nonminable reserves. One example, he said, is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which has significant coal reserves that are now off-limits to development as a result of action taken in 1996 by the Clinton administration.
To stabilize Earth’s climate at reasonable levels, he said, “you really need to leave it in the ground.”
There’s a very bad worst-case scenario implied by all of that. Think brown coal and peat, which are much cheaper to tap than the “unconventional” fossil fuels.