Predictions of Coal, CO2 Production Flawed, Says Latest Research

July 26, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas — The CO2 emission estimates used for government policy decisions assume unlimited coal and fossil fuel production for the next 100 years, an unrealistic premise which skews climate change models and proposed solutions, according to new research published by Tad Patzek, chair of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin.

Based on widely accepted studies predicting coal production will peak and decline after 2011, Patzek warns climate change predictions should be revised to account for this inevitable peak and decline. His research appears in the internationally peer-reviewed journal, Energy, The International Journal.

"Governments worldwide are basing their policy decisions on the uninterrupted increase of coal and oil production worldwide," says Patzek. "These policy decisions will be inherently in error, and will lead to expensive and false technological solutions."

Under the 40 different U.S. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios, Patzek found 36 of the 40 scenarios predicted future carbon production and CO2 emissions at today's rate of coal production. Credible forecasts of coal production, by contrast, predict a 50 percent reduction over the next 50 years.

"Most of the IPCC scenario writers accepted the common myth of 200-400 years of coal supply, and now their 'eternal' (100 years plus) growth of carbon dioxide emissions in turn is a part of the commonly accepted social myth," says Patzek. "It seems, therefore, that the present attempt to inject some geophysics into the debate will be an uphill battle."

Patzek evaluated the accuracy of each of the 40 IPCC scenarios based on diminishing coal and fossil fuel resources. His full report was published in the August issue of Energy, The International Journal with co-author, Dr. Gregory Croft, who was Patzek's last Ph.D. student at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

"The IPCC carbon estimates, which are used by all major decision makers, are based on economic and policy considerations that appear to be unconstrained by geophysics," says Patzek. "The value of our approach is that it provides a reality check on the magnitude of carbon emissions."

The paper provides a physical model of historical and future production of coal worldwide. The model demonstrates that despite enormous coal deposits globally, coal production rates will decline because the deposits show increasing inaccessibility and decreasing coal seam thickness, according to the research.

"The current global hysteria around carbon capture and sequestration is leading to desperately poor government policies," says Patzek. "For instance, large-scale subsurface sequestration of CO2 will decrease power plant efficiency by up to 50 percent. The same resources could be spent more wisely on increasing U.S. coal-fired power plant efficiency by 50 percent from the current 32 percent."

For more information, contact: Maria Arrellaga, communications director, Cockrell School of Engineering, 512 471 7330;  Tadeusz Patzek, Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering College of Engineering, 512-232-8368.

23 Comments to "Predictions of Coal, CO2 Production Flawed, Says Latest Research"

1.  ED said on Aug. 3, 2010

Yes, peak oil (which I've been following for 10 years) and peak coal, ceteris paribus, would make CO2 levels lower than otherwise projected by IPCC.

At the same time, however, it's also true that positive feedbacks that were either not known just a few years ago, or which were known but due to political pressure by China, U.S., Saudi Arabia or others were excluded from IPCC analysis, meaning that, ceteris paribus, we can expect CO2 and other GHG levels to be HIGHER than IPCC predicted when it excluded those considerations.

So the inconvenient fact is that, all other things are not equal (ceteris is not paribus) have to adjust downward for peak oil/peak coal reasons, and you have to adjust upward, due to omitted positive feedbacks, which could unleash massive increases in CO2, methane etc., in positive feedbacks from natural systems, responding to initial actions by humankind.

Now, it couldn't possibly be that oil-addicted folks in the oil-industry-$$$-linked Texas area, might possibly want to look at ONLY the former and NOT the latter, could it?

"It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it." -Upton Sinclair

2.  Robert Fiske said on Aug. 3, 2010

To follow what ED said, one of the unfortunate reactions to an energy downturn, be it from coal or oil availability (and we're seeing significant electricity disruptions and vulnerabilities in many places right now, as well) could easily be the enormous increase in burning wood again, which would be another positive feedback to the CO2 situation, even while it's often looked on as carbon neutral, in such a case it could preempt the recapture expected by healthy growing forests.

3.  Bruce said on Aug. 4, 2010

Dr. Patzek's research injects a welcome quantitative assessment into the discussion of climate change, that is rarely seen and sorely needed. Ed's comments referencing positive feedback loops is unsubstantiated, unfortunately, and perpetuates the emotional response that has no place in a careful evaluation of climate science. When these positive feedback loops that Ed refers to are clearly established, instead of assumed, we may have something worth analyzing. The most important fact that comes out of Dr. Patzek's research is that there is a need to quanyitatively evaluate the assumptions and predictions within the IPCC reports, as they are not well supported, and make broad, and often incorrect, assumptions as demonstrated both by Dr. Patzek and by the commenter Ed.

What is important in the assessment of climate change is to recognize that the Earth's climate has in the past, and will in the future, change radically from what we perceive today as our normal climate. We have seen the retreat of continental scale glaciers for the last 15,000 years. If the endpoint for this current trend in climate change is our modern climate, and we move into another glacial period, will we, as a society, run around in a panic trying to find ways to keep the planet warm? Sea levels in the past have been as much as 100 meters above their current level, and we have had open antarctic and arctic seas. Carbon dioxide levels have been as much as 2,000 to 4,000 ppm in the atmosphere and life, throughout the earth, prospered. The current popular consensus is that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are driving climate change.

Unfortunately, when non-anthropogenic trends are separated out from anthropogenic impacts, the error bars are such that we believe there is a relationship, but this is not unequivocal and much research remains to be done to clearly establish the nature and magnitude of human activities on global climate. Research such as that published by Dr. Patzek is a critical necessity for the entire global climate discussion, and is refreshingly welcome. Innuendos that Dr. Patzek's research is tainted because of his residency at The University of Texas at Austin is nothing more than smear tactics by someone who offers no facts to stand on, and no ethics to govern their comments.

4.  Michael F said on Aug. 4, 2010

May I paraphrase Ed?

At the same time, however, it's also true that lies, misrepresentations and errors in underlying assumptions and conclusions of the "research" of the global warming cult were known until recently, but which were accepted as fact by the left, promoted by a gullible and complicit media, and trumpeted by an ignorant politician who were too busy having his second chakra released by a masseuse in California to really care about the truth.

So the real science behind energy policy comes as an "inconvenient truth" to the Chicken Little Sky-Is-Falling- Brigade, whose energy policy is a silly "carbon credit scheme" (a modern day secular indulgence) for rich countries to pretend they are doing something useful, while transferring wealth and power to unelected bureaucrats who can waste it on pet projects.

Now, it couldn't possibly be that global warming myth-addicted folks in academe or cities, whose carefree life is made possible by fossil fuels but whose invitations to chic cocktail parties depend on being able to recite glib remarks that disparage Big Oil or George Bush, but never Big Government or those who rub their hands with glee at the possible downfall of the U.S., might possibly be looking at their hopelessly flawed data, assumptions and analyses, and NOT the opinions of thousands of real scientific experts?

"The problem with socialism is that you soon run out of other people's money." -- Margaret Thatcher

5.  John Walker said on Aug. 5, 2010

ED -

I'm trying to understand your objections to the conclusions of Dr. Patzek. Exactly what are "omitted positive feedbacks" and how will they increase CO2 and methane levels in the atmosphere at a greater rate than decreasing production levels of coal that will cause a decrease in CO2 and methane in the atmosphere? It seems to me that Dr. Patzek has discovered a flaw in the government's assumptions that if not made known could lead to wasteful policies. Isn't it positive to debunk or at least raise questions about assumptions on which important policy decisions depend?

6.  Gerard Rickey said on Aug. 5, 2010

I would have concerns that once captured CO2 emissions would remain captured. I wouldn't want them captured under my house. The idea of transporting the captured CO2 for use in secondary recovery efforts in old oil and gas fields interests me. I seem to recall that when Obama was an Illinois senator, he went to great lengths to promote coal production.

7.  kerry said on Aug. 5, 2010

Oooh, I like this: "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it." -- Upton Sinclair

That explains a lot about our lack of energy policy and our abundance of energy politics!

8.  harris maynord said on Aug. 5, 2010

ED, you appear to have a good post until the last two paragraphs. Making anonymous personal attacks hurts your arguments.

9.  Steve said on Aug. 5, 2010

Thankfully, a well thought out study. I would argue with the previous posting party that all errors should be rejected in the global warming debate so we could get closer to the truth. What seems most "inconvenient" to me is gross assumption and inaccuracy in an attempt to reach an expected outcome, Latin phrases or not. It should be clear that our coal reserves will not last forever, even to the most ardent global warming alarmist.

10.  Howard R. Lowe said on Aug. 5, 2010

Professor Patzek, you made some excellent points re: "blind" acceptance of the effects of coal and fossil fuels on climate change models. I'd guess Ed is more willing to accept conjecture than science when it comes to climate prediction.

So, let's talk about the convenient truth, Ed. In science the truth comes from building hypotheses and theories, then rigorously testing them against the data. Only by questioning them can correct scientific conclusions be made. By the way, Ed, what is your theory? How can we test it against the data? Do you realize that suppositions and subjective conclusions are not real DATA?

Ed probably also believes that climate prediction outcomes performed by climate models applying chaos methodology give a real answer. Instead I offer up the conclusions reached by hundreds of scientists and engineers regarding such predictions, i.e. climate modeling is in an embryonic stage and the outcomes are very, very questionable. Ed, in case you doubt my number I'd be happy to furnish you with a list that reaches up to more than 400. No one says stop using models. As scientists and engineers they know that time and the efforts of many will gradually improve the models and give BETTER results.

Lastly, Professor Patzek has posed some very important questions about DATA. His comments add to the knowledge base re: climate. Yes, and I am sure he agrees - they will need further study to reach a more determinate conclusion. But, that is what science and engineering are all about.

11.  Robert said on Aug. 5, 2010

This study makes some suppositions that themselves are flawed, which allows the authors to arrive at conclusions that are not fact-based.

It is apparent that no matter what the governments of the planet do to regulate CO2 emissions, we will continue to conduct BAU (Business As Usual) until we have extracted the last accessible lump of coal, the last accessible drop of oil and the last accessible cubic foot of gas. The fossil fuel industry is actively making certain of this, both in their efforts to delay changes in our energy economies, and in their funding of climate change denial activities.

Further, this study ignores the cumulative and disastrous feedbacks in our climate, as mentioned by ED above, that are the results of unlimited CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution took place, around 1850.

It appears that author of this study has ulterior motives in his effort to publish this paper. The efforts of the fossil fuel industry to obfuscate, confuse and deny the facts of climate change are clearly paying handsome dividends in disrupting U.S. legislative attempts to regulate CO2. Profits have been sustained by Exxon, Chevron, even BP, as well as Peabody Coal, and electric utilities.

The climate change denial industry will continue to use the same tactics used by the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry, the chemical industry and the CFC industry: confuse the issue to the masses, obfuscate, lie, innuendo, attack the scientists, attack the science with junk science, commit fraud, it's "anything goes" as long as profits are sustained.

12.  Neville Reynolds, MSTC said on Aug. 5, 2010

There is another factor that is often overlooked in the calculation of future CO2 levels. Doesn't the rapid rate of destruction of forests and flora have a significant impact on the ability of Earth's biosphere to absorb CO2?

I continue to be shocked by scientists who are unable to frame their assertions and facts within a Systems Thinking model. "Scientific rigor" is an oxymoron when ecosystem models are not factored into a hypothesis about the systemic impact of CO2 levels on the Earth's biosphere.

Based on my observation, it is the rule, not the exception, that scientists and engineers who are dependent on funding and income from the oil industry have a natural bias to protect their livelihood. This is a normal human survival reaction to a perceived threat.

From my point of view, it is imprudent to neglect biases when making an assessment of facts, data and statistics that are offered to support a hypothesis. It is highly imprudent to avoid the existence of scientific biases when the hypothesis could directly impact the viability of human life on Earth.

13.  DG said on Aug. 5, 2010

ED, what does your salary depend upon? Global warming hysteria perhaps? Is it the case that these "positive feedbacks" weren't known or had they just not been dreamed up by the folks at East Anglia University and Penn State until a few years ago when, despite their best efforts to fudge the data and exclude all contradictory research, the "science" just wasn't alarming enough to suit their ideology? The author makes a valid point that hasty policy decisions based upon incomplete or inaccurate data "will lead to expensive and false technological solutions." Just refer to the ethanol debacle in the recent past for evidence.

14.  Wesley G. Britson said on Aug. 5, 2010

Thank you for providing an intellectual discussion of CO2 instead of the blather backed by junk science that has inundated the media for years. It would have been popular for you to continue the myths and most likely would have lead to an increase in your personal wealth through research if you would have perpetuated the myth and actually gave it credibility. Keep up your reasoned intellectual pursuit.

15.  Timnaustin said on Aug. 5, 2010

ED...well said. To the others...whatever.

16.  Eric said on Aug. 5, 2010

There are three really important questions that need to be answered and this is involved in at least two of them.

1) Is global warming real? How much is due to man's activities? What are the long-term trends?

This, of course, has a lot to do with the long-term trends.

2) What can we do to effectively counter global warming?

Improving the efficiency of coal-powered energy is, of course, one thing that would help.

3) Provided that global warming is real and that there are effective things to do, should we do it?

This is hardly being looked at, much less answered. Most people seem to assume that global warming is bad when, in reality, a certain degree of global warming is far more likely to be quite beneficial overall. It would mean more food production and a greener planet. There are already some reports that part of the Sahara Desert are greening for the first time in centuries.

The real disaster would be global cooling. That could mean hunger and death by starvation for tens or hundreds of millions of people.

We have plenty of time to do the research and determine what we need to do. There is no need to panic.

17.  Frances said on Aug. 5, 2010

It is nice to see real science for a change instead of politically driven IPCC fantasies. The goal of the U.N. and its subsidiary agencies is wealth redistribution. If they can't make an honest argument for it they will simply make up a loud dishonest one.

Patzek is a welcome voice of reason in this continuing discussion.

18.  Flo said on Aug. 5, 2010

If we know this, why doesn't everyone, especially the ONES in power?

19.  Greg said on Aug. 5, 2010

I’ve witnessed compelling arguments on both sides of the climate change issue. No doubt each side has agenda, i.e. financial, political or personal values that can cloud one’s perception concerning the possible consequences of our energy use. That being said, my greatest concern is the ability of man to make prognostications about the earth several decades into the future. Many are skilled and informed but historically prognosticators have been wrong as much as they have been right. As you progress from the next day to the next month to the next year to the next decade the odds that a prognostication will be true decrease substantially. Who is willing to “bet the farm” on a long term prediction?

Climate science is in its infancy when compared to other scientific disciplines. How many minds and resources have been directed over the decades to cures for cancer? How many minds and resources have been focused over the decades to solving an elusive unified field theory of physics? Our progress or understanding of complex issues cannot be left to the prognosticators of the day. I am a skeptic of climate change scientists since their validation is dependent on conditions 40 years in the future. They may be great at collecting and observing climate data but that does not equate to the ability to predict earth’s future.

A recent lesson in climate prediction was the exodus of two million people into gridlock because a 48-hour hurricane forecast led to an incorrect perception of impending peril. The hurricane made landfall 60 miles away. Even now the models produced by meteorological scientists cannot predict landfall 24 hours in advance without a precision of +/- 25 miles. It’s a very significant difference for a potentially serious meteorological event. Are we to accept without question predictions about earth’s climate 40 years from now?

Professor Patzek’s research is as valid as any other view of the future that is by no means certain or highly predictable.

20.  Randy said on Aug. 5, 2010

Wow. "Peak coal" in 2011?

I've never read that date before for the peak of coal. The 200-400 year myth is fairly well-known, but I've always thought of coal peaking around 2035-2050, not 2011.

While it may be true that the climate models need some tweaking, boy howdy, we're in real trouble energy-wise. If coal production really peaks next year, the world is in some serious, serious energy trouble come about 2020.

21.  Buz Davis said on Aug. 5, 2010

Bravo, Eric!

22.  sri said on Aug. 7, 2010

While it might be true that coal production will decline 50 percent over the next 50 years, the real question is what contribution will this make to the overall levels of CO2? For example much of the CO2 comes from deforestation. Another large part is from transportation, which doesn't use coal.

It's interesting that climate deniers have found one more straw to cling to. Very much like every other claim of "climate hysteria" is eventually proven wrong. But only of course after the media goes around and trumpets how climate scientists have it all wrong.

John Walker: The feedback loops left out of the current models are what happens when the methane hits the fan. Or are you still convinced that a group of scientifically illiterate deniers might know more than the actual scientists?

DG: To what exactly are you referring when you say that the East Anglia group "fudge the data and exclude all contradictory research"? The group has been exonerated of any scientific misconduct. The only scientific dishonesty is from people such as yourself who keep repeating the same old right wing lies.

23.  AJ said on Aug. 10, 2010

The scientists weren't really exonerated, contrary to what the headlines of the New York Times might have read. The article explained that their science wasn't necessarily faulty, but their actions of refusing to publish data, and seeking to exclude anyone who disagrees with their viewpoint from the scientific community. That is the definition of scientific misconduct. Science needs peer review and dialogue, which they refused to participate in.