resources in the United States. (Averitt, 1975). However, this estimate has little practical significance because most of this coal cannot be mined economically using current mining practices. A more meaningful figure is the ~267 billion tons of Estimated Recoverable Reserves (ERR) (EIA, 2006a) that is the basis for the commonly reported estimate that the United States has at least 250 years of minable coal.1 This chapter addresses two major questions to place existing estimates of the amount of usable coal into a broad perspective:

  1. Are estimates of available coal reliable, and are they good enough to allow federal policy makers to formulate coherent national energy policies?

  2. Can coal reserves in the United States produce the total 1.7 billion tons per year of coal required in 2030 if the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reference case described in Chapter 2 becomes a reality?

The answer to the second question, whether the United States has enough minable coal to meet the projected demands in the EIA reference case, is definitely yes. Coal mining companies report at least 19 billion tons of Recoverable Reserves at Active Mines (EIA, 2006a), and the coal industry reports about 60 billion tons of reserves held by private companies (NMA, 2006a). If recoverable reserves on private, federal, and state lands are added, there is no question that sufficient minable coal is available to meet the nation’s coal needs through 2030. Looking further into the future, there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current production levels. However, it is not possible to confirm that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years, as is often asserted. A combination of increased rates of production with more detailed reserve analyses that take into account location, quality, recoverability, and transportation issues may substantially reduce the estimated number of years supply. This increasing uncertainty associated with the longer-term projections arises because significant information is incomplete or unreliable. The data that are publicly available for such projections are outdated, fragmentary, or inaccurate—these deficiencies are elaborated below. Because there are no statistical measures to reflect the uncertainty of the nation’s estimated recoverable reserves, future policy will continue to be developed in the absence of accurate estimates until more detailed reserve analyses—which take into account the full suite of geographical, geological, economic, legal, and environmental characteristics—are completed.


The terms coal resources and coal reserves are commonly misused and mistakenly interchanged. Coal resource is a more general term that describes


This statistic is derived by dividing the Energy Information Administration figure of 267 billion tons of ERR by the current annual coal usage of approximately 1.1 billion tons.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement