Colorado Coal Production Apparent Peak Was 2004–Most Other States Are Also Past Peak Production

Colorado is typically about the seventh largest producer of coal in the United States, producing less than 40 million tons of coal a year. By comparison, the top coal producing state Wyoming produces over 450 million tons–with many single mines in Wyoming producing more than the entire annual coal production of Colorado.

Coal production by state can be tracked in Table 1 of the Energy Information Administration’s annual coal report which can be found here.

Tracking Colorado’s coal production. it becomes clear that Colorado’s coal production hit a peak of just under 40 million tons in 2004. Since that time, Colorado coal production has declined significantly with Colorado coal production in 2008 being reported as 32.8 million tons.

Between 2004 and 2008, Colorado coal production declined by about 17%–and, as discussed below, 2009 production is lagging about 10% behind 2008 production. When final 2009 data become available, it is possible that between 2004 and 2009, Colorado coal production will have declined by 20% or more.

As of the third quarter of 2009, Colorado’s coal production was about 10% below 2008 levels. Quarterly coal production by state can be found on the Energy Information Administration coal data web page here.

The decline in Colorado coal production (and as discussed below a similar decline in most other coal producing states) is largely the result of geologic constraints. The easily accessible coal in the United States has largely been mined and turned into CO2 that now resides in the atmosphere and oceans.

While it is possible that Colorado (and other coal producing states that are past peak production) could open new mines and reach a new peak in production this doesn’t seem likely considering the considerable geologic, economic, legal and transportation constraints facing future coal production as discussed in detail here.

What About the Other Coal Producing States?

From EIA data on coal production, it is clear that all of the top 15 coal producing states have passed peak coal production except Wyoming and Montana. As of the third quarter of 2009, both Wyoming and Montana coal production declined in 2009 compared to 2008, but this could be due to the economy.

A careful analysis of existing life span of Wyoming mines and the geology of the coal in the Powder River Basin indicates that a peak in Wyoming coal production may not be too far in the future.

Montana is an unknown, but at about 40 million tons of coal produced a year, and strong local opposition to sacrificing the local agriculture and range economy for coal production, it appears unlikely that Montana coal production will increase dramatically in the future.

An extensive report on US coal supplies entitled “Coal–Cheap and Abundant, Or Is It? Why Americans Should Stop Assuming that the United States Has a 200 Year Supply of Coal” is available for free download from the Clean Energy Action website.

Additional information is available from the author upon request.

Xcel’s 2009 Coal Prices Match Price Predicted for 2035–Ooops…

In its last Resource Plan Xcel predicted that its coal prices would stay relatively flat–increasing about 2% a year for the next several decades. Historical prices back to 1998 can be seen in LWG 1-4, part (b).  Until Xcel’s long term coal contracts began expiring in 2005, the average price paid for coal was under $1/MMBTU (million BTUs).

Once the long term coal contracts expired, Xcel’s coal costs have been mounting significantly-averaging over 10%/year. In 2009, Xcel paid over $1.50/MMBTU. In Xcel’s 2009 Annual 10-k report submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Xcel reported paying $1.52/MMBTU for its coal in Colorado. (See page 21 for Xcel’s Colorado coal costs.) In response to the Discovery Question LWG 5-3 (Docket 09A-772E), Xcel provided a 2009 coal cost of $1.61/MMBTU. The reason for the discrepancy is not clear–but either way this is a 50% increase in price in four years–way beyond the 2% per year price increase that was predicted in the last Xcel Resource Plan.

With a coal price in excess of $1.50/MMBTU in 2009, Xcel paid a price for coal in 2009 that it didn’t expect to pay until 2035. Ooops!

A careful assessment of production statistics and the geology of existing coal mines and an analysis of future constraints on coal production indicate that future price increases for coal are likely. While all fossil fuels are subject to complex forces of supply and demand and their price is volatile, the fact that coal is a solid, makes it difficult to work around the very real geologic constraints that exist on economically accessible coal.

More information on coal supplies is available in the extensive Clean Energy Action report issued in February 2009 entitled, “Coal–Cheap and Abundant–Or Is It?”

Let’s Start Our Diet Today–Not “Tomorrow….” Reductions in CO2 Emissions Needed Now–Not in 5-10 Years

Submitted by Leslie Glustrom on March 6, 2010 – 11:11am

Yesterday, March 5, 2010 was a red letter day for the climate and clean energy campaigns in Colorado.

First the State Senate passed a 30% by 2020 Renewable Portfolio Standard for the Investor Owned Utilities in Colorado and the bill is expected to be signed soon by Governor Ritter. This is a hugely important step forward and there are many that deserve credit for making it happen. Governor Ritter, Xcel, Environment Colorado led the way, with strong support from Colorado’s many climate and clean energy organizations, including of course, Clean Energy Action.

Then, late in the day yesterday news was released of a plan to retire or repower Front Range coal plants. Designed as a plan to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and address more stringent Clean Air Act requirements and issues of regional haze, the plan would include the evaluation of retiring, converting or replacing 900 megawatts of Front Range coal plants. This is likely to include an evaluation of the North Denver “Cherokee” coal plant as well as the Boulder Valmont coal plant, but this won’t be fully clear until further details become available.

Yesterday was indeed an historic day as Colorado worked to increase its commitment to developing its abundant wind and solar resources while at the same time agreeing to retire aging coal plants. It was enough to make this seasoned activist cry not once, but twice and everyone who cares about Colordo’s air and economy–to say nothing of the fate of the only planet we know of that supports life–should be cheering. Nonetheless, there is room for a sober assessment of where we are.

First, let’s begin by talking about the workers and families who depend on employment in coal plants. Much care must be taken to ensure that these workers are provided with a just transition as Colorado moves past its reliance on coal for electricity. This author has suggested a 0.05% surcharge on electric bills to fund a transition program for coal plant workers. This would be a very small surcharge–less than a dime a month on a typical residential utility bill–that would provide over $1 million a year to provide support and retraining for Xcel’s coal plant workers during the transition.

Secondly, it is critical that we speed up this process. Colorado is now in the position of a dieter or alcoholic that is committed to starting their diet or sobriety program–tomorrow. While this is a big improvement from where we’ve been, it is critical that we begin carbon dioxide (and mercury and arsenic and particulates and nitrogen oxide) reductions  now–not in the next 5-10 years.

The Unit 3 coal plant in Pueblo will increase our state’s carbon dioxide emissions significantly and Xcel intends to bring that coal plant on line in the next couple of weeks. The effect of the Unit 3 coal plant on Colorado’s carbon dioxide emissions can be seen in a number of places, but it is perhaps most clearly shown by the increasing purple line in the graph on page 11 of the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office REDI report issued in December 2009.

When you’re getting dressed you don’t put your pants and shirt on and then put on your underwear; you’d soon be taken in for a mental evaluation. Similarly, when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, we should retire old coal plants first–and then decide what to do about the new coal plant in Pueblo. With approximately 14,000 MW of wind and solar projects awaiting development in Colorado, there is good reason to believe that we can both retire the Front Range coal plants, and not start up the 750 MW Unit 3 coal plant in Pueblo.

Colorado has made an excellent start–but let’s start our diet before we indulge in the carbon emissions of the new Unit 3 coal plant in Pueblo.

The last time I checked, we really did know of only one planet that supports life and a single typo in the midst of thousands of pages of IPCC reports does not change the seriousness of the science on climate change.

Accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy