How unsustainable is Australia…?

19 06 2012

As an aside to all my usual activities, I sometimes spend too much time commenting on the Australian Broadcasting Corporations blog site called “The Drum”.  If someone writes an article on energy or sustainability or resources, I usually jump in and rattle some cages by pointing out the errors in their ways of thinking.  During such an exchange, I quoted my “running out of oil by 2020” mantra, and, to cut to the chase, was forced to revisit Mark O’Connor’s link to this still ignored momentous event.

The chart in this report is so important, I have decided to reproduce it here for discussion.  Some of the info there is simply mind boggling…..

Indicative life of Australia’s non-renewable resource stocks

(a) The indicative life of a non-renewable resource is calculated as the stock of the accessible economic demonstrated resource relative to annual production. Brown coal’s indicative resource life in 2008 was 490 years.
Note: The data for crude oil and natural gas is based on economic demonstrated resources, which for these two commodities is equivalent to accessible economic demonstrated resources.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

Each resource has three bars related to data available five years apart…..  1997, 2002, and 2008.  Can’t wait to see the 2013 data!  The way to read this chart is by going to the end of whatever bar you are interested in, and drawing a vertical line straight down to the bottom where it tells you how many years of that resource are left before we run out.

So if you take the longest one, black coal (1997), it tells you that then, we had ~190 years of coal left.  I particularly want to stay with coal here, because once the oil is gone in twelve years time, we’ll be relying on coal a whole lot more.

By 2002, the estimated time left before running out had dropped dramatically to ~115 years, and by 2008, to ~90 years…….  which means that in just fifteen years, instead of the remaining time dropping by fifteen years, it fell by a whopping one hundred years, meaning we extracted HALF of all the coal we needed for business as usual.

Of course, it’s easy to be misled by numbers, and there is no information here as to exactly what this time left really is.

I suspect it’s years left at Australian Consumption Rate.  Most of the coal we mine goes to China and Japan, so we are extracting it at a much faster rate than we as a nation burn for electricity purposes.  And there’s no way of knowing whether the numbers include all discovered stores of coal, or merely those that are currently being exploited.  Surely it would be the former?

I know extrapolating charts like this is a dangerous thing, but at the current depletion/export rate, we could be out of coal within 20 years, unless (and it is highly probable) more substantial stocks are either discovered or exploited.  I know Clive Palmer wants to open a gargantuan coal mine in Queensland, but whether this will ever occur in view of the way the financial world is crashing all around us remains to be seen.

One thing’s for sure, all those people who believe we have 500 years of coal left are way way off the mark.

The rest of the resources list is also interesting, because while some have gone up in estimation (Uranium, Nickel and Copper being three important ones), all the others are either stagnant or falling, and they average out at about 60 years left, give or take a decade.

So how long has modern civilisation left to go?  Your guess is as good as mine, but that the Club of Rome’s predictions are bang on target still applies without a shadow of a doubt on my part.  I just wish the powers that be would stop ignoring Limits to Growth and change direction before the ship strikes the iceberg.  Effective leadership is why we elect them after all, they owe it to us.  Not holding my breath though….




4 responses

17 07 2012

Actually it is worse than you show here. World peak coal will occur about 2025, but if what is happening in the US is a guide the energy content of the mineable coal is falling and so while tonnage may hold up the energy being lower means more is needed. World peak coal energy will occur earlier than 2025. This will increase the demand on our supplies and reduce the 20 years that you suggest.

17 07 2012

Yes, you are right, but this is just Australia, and we seem to still have a lot of black coal, unlike the US which ran out some 20 years ago…. but just try and tell any of the idiots on The Drum who tell me we have 500 years of the stuff left…..!

25 08 2012
Jonathan Maddox

Why didn’t you just include the footnote instead of waffling about what the numbers might refer to?

“The indicative life of a non-renewable resource is calculated as the stock of the accessible economic demonstrated resource relative to annual production.”

So the graph is calculated not on the magnitude of the total resource, it’s “accessible economic demonstrated resource” aka “proven reserves” (where “proven” expands with each new development, “accessible” expands with technology and “economic” necessarily fluctuates with economic conditions including technological change and competition). The graph shows the current idea of reserves divided by the current production rate, including exports, and does not reflect domestic consumption rates. How much uranium did you think we use here in Australia?

Knowing the difference between reserves and resources is useful.

25 08 2012

Thanks for pointing that out Jonathan…. I simply missed it! It’s fixed too. And I do know the difference between reserves and resources, it’s just I don’t believe the numbers most of the time.
I’m also not a fan of ““accessible” expands with technology”, because whilst this is true, the ERoEI of such technological expansion is the Achilles heel of the technology.

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