Coal Reserves in the US

Unlike the reserve situation for oil and gas, the country’s coal deposits are virtually inexhaustible. The US has some 29% of the world’s definitely measured and mineable coal reserve: 238 billion tons at the end of 2009 (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010). The deposits are located in the Appalachian coalfield in the east, which has hard coal and anthracite, followed by the Illinois basin east of the Mississippi, which has sub-bituminous coal high in sulphur. In the west, there are the low-sulphur, sub-bituminous coals of the Powder River, Green River, Uinta and San Juan basins. Extensive lignite reserves can be found in the southern Gulf region and in the northern lignite basin on the Canadian border.

The US government owns most of the coal reserves in the US (88 billion tons) then Great Northern Properties Limited Partnership (20 billion tons) and Peabody Energy (7.9 billion tons). All other owners of coal resources reported less than 4,000 million tons of reserves in 2009. However, many companies reported considerably fewer reserves in 2009 than in 2008, perhaps due to the selling off of assets (see details on companies below). Most of the reserves being exploited have a coal seam depth of more than 120 inches.

Production in the east region, especially in the Central Appalachian, has been declining due to rising operations costs resulting in higher coal prices than in other regions. Costs have risen because the region is characterised by underground mining, degrading reserve quality and high legacy liabilities from pensions, pay outs for black lung and land reclamation and headwinds on mountaintop removal (MTR). The EPA is unlikely to do a U-turn on its efforts to stringently police permits for mountaintop mines in the region as they might impact streams. If the Appalachian Restoration Act is passed in the Senate, amending the Clean Water Act, it will make it difficult for mines to comply. It is estimated that coal production could be reduced by 10% to 70%.

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