I don’t know which side is right in the peak coal debate—but I do know that Blackout is an important and timely book. In the form of this compact volume, one of the best and most productive peak oil authors working today has turned his customary scholarship, wisdom, wit and writing prowess to some of the most critical issues now unfolding on our planet.
Frank gives an overview of the book:
by Frank Kaminski
Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis
By Richard Heinberg
201 pp. New Society Publishers – May 2009. $18.95.
Richard Heinberg’s new book Blackout tries to demolish current assumptions about the world’s remaining coal endowment: namely, that it is immense beyond belief, barely tapped and will last for centuries to come. Heinberg argues that these assumptions are off-base, misleading and not at all supported by recent studies that suggest global coal production could peak in less than two decades. He warns that an impending shortage of minable coal threatens to plunge our civilization into one final, irreversible Blackout unless we act wisely.
Heinberg makes his case well. One of the things that I’ve always admired about his writing is the way he tries to avoid any potential for bias by considering all possible viewpoints and contributing factors with regard to a given issue, even those that might weaken his argument. Nowhere is this even-handed approach more evident than in Blackout, where he discusses not only the pessimistic reports on remaining coal reserves, but also those that he considers to be overly optimistic. In short, Heinberg can always be counted on to give us fact without inflammation.
And yet, my mind still isn’t quite made up about the book's central thesis. Common sense tells me that it's probably more right than wrong—not only because of Heinberg's sound analysis of the reserves data, but also because imminent declines in oil production will surely place additional pressure on coal supplies, which could hasten coal's peak. But quite a few people within the peak oil community simply aren’t buying this case for a peak in coal production within our lifetimes. According to these skeptics, peak coalers underestimate the ability of emerging technologies to extract a larger proportion of the resource than what is currently considered to be recoverable. On the advice of one such skeptic and personal friend, I spent several days researching innovative coal technologies like underground coal gasification (UCG) and microbial coal prior to writing this review. And, being anything but an energy scientist myself, I still find that I can’t reach a firm conclusion about the degree of promise held by these technologies. Thus, the remainder of this review will focus solely on Heinberg’s analysis of reserves data, rather than on the merits of the various emerging coal technologies.
I knew that I wanted to be a writer by the age of thirteen. While the other kids were playing outside, I was always holed up in my room working on my latest short story or attempt at a novel. I had other artistic pursuits as well—I did a lot of drawing, sculpture-making,...