Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis - Part 7

by Prof. Al Bartlett

VII. What do the experts say?

Now that we have seen the facts let us compare them with statements from authoritative sources. Let us look first at a report to the Congress.

It is clear, particularly in the case of coal, that we have ample reserves.... We have an abundance of coal in the ground. Simply stated, the crux of the problem is how to get it out of the ground and use it in environmentally acceptable ways and on an economically competitive basis... At current levels of output and recovery these reserves can be expected to last more than 500 years.14

Here is one of the most dangerous statements in the literature. It is dangerous because news media and the energy companies pick up the idea that "United States coal will last 500 years" while the media and the energy companies forget or ignore the important caveat with which the sentence began, "At current levels of output . . ." The right-hand column of Table IX shows that at zero rate of growth of consumption even the low estimate of the U.S. coal resource "will last over 500 years." However, it is absolutely clear that the government does not plan to hold coal production constant "at current levels of output."

Table IX.
Lifetime in years of United States coal (EET).  The lifetime (EET) in years of U.S. coal reserves (both the high and low estimate of the U.S.G.S.) are shown for several rates of growth of production from the 1972 level of 0.5 (x109) metric tons per year.


High Estimate (yr)

Low Estimate (yr)














































Coal reserves far exceed supplies of oil and gas, and yet coal supplies only 18 % of our total energy. To maintain even this contribution we will need to increase coal production by 70% by 1985, but the real goal, to increase coal's share of the energy market will require a staggering growth rate.15

While the government is telling us that we must achieve enormous increases in the rate of coal production, other governmental officials are telling us that we can increase the rate of production of coal and have the resource last for a very long time.

The trillions of tons of coal lying under the United States will have to carry a large part of the nation's increased energy consumption, says (the) Director of the Energy Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories. "He estimated America's coal reserves are so huge, they could last 'a minimum of 300 years and probably a maximum of 1000 years.'"16

Compare the above statement of the life expectancy of U.S. coal reserves with the results of very simple calculations given in Table IX.

In the three-hour CBS television special on energy (August 31, 1977) a reporter stressed the great efforts that are being made to increase the rate of production of U.S. coal, and he summarized the situation in these words, "By the lowest estimate, we have enough (coal) for 200 years. By the highest, enough for more than a thousand years."

Again, compare the above statement with the results of simple calculations shown in Table IX.

While we read these news stories we are bombarded by advertisements by the energy companies which say that coal will last a long time at present rates of consumption and which say at the same time that we must dramatically increase our rate of production of coal.

At the rate the United States uses coal today, these reserves could help keep us in energy for the next two hundred years . . . Most coal used in America today is burned by electric power plants (which) consumed about 400 million tons of coal last year. By 1985 this figure could jump to nearly 700 million tons.17

Other advertisements stress just the 500 years (no caveat): "We are sitting on half the world's known supply of coal - enough for over 500 years."18 Some ads stress the idea of self-sufficiency without stating for how long a period we might be self-sufficient. "Coal, the only fuel in which America is totally self-sufficient."19 Other ads suggest a deep lack of understanding of the fundamentals of the exponential function.

Yet today there are still those who shrill (sic) for less energy and no growth... Now America is obligated to generate more energy - not less - merely to provide for its increasing population... With oil and gas in short supply, where will that energy come from? Predominately from coal. The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates America has 23% more coal than we dreamed of, 4,000,000,000,000 (trillion!) tons of it. Enough for over 500 years. (The non-sentences are in the original.)20

A simple calculation of the EET based on a current production rate of 0.6 x 109 tons / yr shows that the growth in the rate of production of coal can't exceed 0.8% / yr if the ad's 4 x 1012 tons of coal is to last for the ad's 500 yr. However, it should be noted that the 4 x 1012 tons cited in the ad is 2.8 times the size of the large estimate of U.S. coal reserves and is 12 times the size of the small estimate of U.S. coal reserves as cited by Hubbert.

When we view the range of creative information that is offered to the public we cannot wonder that people are confused. We may wish that we could have rapid growth of the rate of consumption and have the reserves of U.S. coal last for a large number of years, but very simple calculations are all that is needed to prove that these two goals are incompatible. At this critical time in our nation's history we need to shift our faith to calculations (arithmetic) based on factual data and give up our belief in Walt Disney's First Law: "Wishing will make it so."21

On the broad aspects of the energy problem we note that the top executive of one of our great corporations is probably one of the world's authorities on the exponential growth of investments and compound interest. However, he observes that "the energy crisis was made in Washington." He ridicules "the modern-day occult prediction" of "computer print-outs" and warns against extrapolating past trends to estimate what may happen in the future. He then points out how American free-enterprise solved the great "Whale Oil Crisis" of the 1850s. With this single example as his data base he boldly extrapolates into the future to assure us that American ingenuity will solve the current energy crisis if the bureaucrats in Washington will only quit interfering.22 It is encouraging to note that the person who made these statements in 1974, suggesting that the energy crisis was contrived rather than real, has now signed his name on an advertisement in Newsweek Magazine (Sept. 12, 1977) saying that, "Energy is not a political issue. It's an issue of survival. Time is running out." However, the same issue of Newsweek Magazine carried two advertisements for coal which said: "We've limited our use of coal while a supply that will last for centuries sits under our noses... Coal - can provide our energy needs for centuries to come."

Carefully read this ad by the Edison Electric Institute for the Electric Companies telling us that: "There is an increasing scarcity of certain fuels. But there is no scarcity of energy. There never has been. There never will be. There never could be. Energy is inexhaustible." (Emphasis is in the original.)23 We can read that a professor in a school of mining technology offers "proof" of the proposition: "Mankind has the right to use the world's resources as it wishes, to the limits of its abilities . . ."24

We have the opening sentence of a major scientific study of the energy problem: "The United States has an abundance of energy resources; fossil fuels (mostly coal and oil shale) adequate for centuries, fissionable nuclear fuels adequate for millennia and solar energy that will last indefinitely."25 We can read the words of an educated authority who asserts that there is no problem of shortages of resources: "It is not true that we are running out of resources that can be easily and cheaply exploited without regard for future operations." His next sentence denies that growth is a serious component of the energy problem, "It is not true that we must turn our back on economic growth"(emphasis is in the original). Three sentences later he says that there may be a problem: "We must face the fact that the well of nonrenewable natural resources is not bottomless."26 He does suggest that lack of "leadership" is part of the problem.

We have a statement by Ralph Nader, "The supply of oil, gas, and coal in this country is enormous and enough for hundreds of years. It is not a question of supply but a question of price and profits, of monopolies and undue political influence."27

Expert analysis of the problem can yield unusual recommendations. We have the opening paper in an energy conference in which a speaker from a major energy company makes no mention of the contribution of growth to the energy crisis when he asserts that: "The core of the energy problem both U.S. and worldwide [is] our excessive dependence on our two scarcest energy resources - oil and natural gas." For him continued growth is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution! More energy must be made available at a higher rate of growth than normal - in the neighborhood of 6 percent per year compared to a recent historical growth rate of 4 percent per year.28

The patient is suffering from cancer, and after a careful study, the doctor prescribes the remedy; give the patient more cancer. Here is a second case where cancer is prescribed as the cure for cancer. The National Petroleum Council in its report to the energy industry on the energy crisis: observed that "Restrictions on energy demand growth could prove (to be) expensive and undesirable... The Council 'flatly rejected' any conservation-type measures proposing instead the production of more energy sources domestically and the easing of environmental controls."29

Study this statement carefully: "Energy industries agree that to achieve some form of energy self-sufficiency the U.S. must mine all the coal that it can."30 The plausibility of this statement disappears and its real meaning becomes apparent when we paraphrase it: "The more rapidly we consume our resources, the more self-sufficient we will be." David Brower has referred to this as the policy of "Strength through Exhaustion." 31 This policy has many powerful adherents. For example, on the three-hour CBS television special on energy (Aug. 31, 1977) William Simon, energy adviser to President Ford said: "We should be "trying to get as many holes drilled as possible to get the proven (oil) reserve . . ."

Is it in the national interest to get and use these reserves as rapidly as possible? We certainly get no sense of urgency from the remarks of the Board Chairman of a major multinational energy corporation who concludes the discussion "Let's Talk Frankly About Energy" with his mild assessment of what we must do. "Getting on top of the energy problem won't be easy. It will be an expensive and time-consuming task. It will require courage, creativeness and discipline . . ."32

If one searches beyond the work of Hubbert for an indication of others who understand the fundamental arithmetic of the problem one finds occasional encouraging evidence.33 However, when one compares the results of the simple exponential calculations with news stories, with statements from public officials, and with assertions in advertisements of the energy companies it is hard to imagine that this arithmetic is widely understood.

The arithmetic of growth is the forgotten fundamental of the energy crisis.

Reprinted with permission from Bartlett, A., American Journal of Physics, 46(9), 876, 1978. This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Copyright 1978, the American Association of Physics Teachers.
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