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Natural Resources: Heading To The Bottom

By Peter Goodchild

11 October, 2012

In terms of actual practice, the world will never experience severe depletion of most metals. The reason is that we will face a serious and permanent loss of oil and other fossil fuels before we have much chance to finish exploiting those other resources. With insufficient fuels in the next few decades, the mines will have to close, and they will stay closed forever. Global production of steel, for example, requires 420 million tonnes of coke (from coal) annually, as well as other fossil fuels adding up to an equivalent of another 100 million tonnes (Smil, 2009, September 17).

A good deal of debate has gone on about "peak oil," the date at which the world's annual oil production will reach (or did reach) its maximum and will begin (or did begin) to decline. One reasonable description of past and future global oil production is Campbell and Laherrère's 1998 Scientific American article, "The End of Cheap Oil," which serves as a sort of locus classicus. Their main chart seems to indicate an annual rate of increase of about 4 percent from the year 1930 to 2000, and an annual rate of post-peak decline of slightly over 3 percent, which would mean that around 2030 oil production will be down to about half of the peak amount (Campbell & Laherrère, 1998, March). Most other major studies place the date of "peak oil" somewhere between 2001 and 2020, and within that period a middle date seems most likely. "Peak oil" may also be indicated by the fact that the price of oil tripled from 2002 to 2012.

After the "peak" itself, the next question is that of the annual rate of decline. Like that of Campbell and Laherrère, other estimates tend to hover around 3 or 4 percent, which means production will fall to half of peak production by about 2030, although there are reasons to suspect the decline will be much faster, particularly if Saudi reserves are seriously overstated, as Matt Simmons (2006) has suggested.

The future of coal will somewhat resemble that of oil. The energy content of US coal has been going down since at least 1950, because the hard coal (anthracite and bituminous coal) is becoming depleted and must be replaced by sub-bituminous coal and lignite. Anthracite production in the US has been in decline since 1990. For those reasons, the actual energy output of all US coal has been flat since that same date. New technologies and mining methods cannot compete against the problems of lower-quality ore and more-difficult seams.

Actual production in the US might reach a plateau of 1400 Mt annually and stay there for the rest of the century. That will happen, however, only if there is massive development of the reserves in Montana, and if serious problems of transportation and the environment can be dealt with. Otherwise, US production will peak around 2030 (Höök & Aleklett, 2009, May 1).

The US has almost 30 percent of the world's coal reserves, while China has only the third-largest reserves, totaling 14 percent, but China accounts for 43 percent of the world's production (Höök, Zittel, Schindler, & Aleklett, 2010, June 8). With its enormous growth in consumption, however, it is unlikely that China's coal supply will last until 2030 (Heinberg, 2009; 2010, May).

Worldwide, coal production is estimated to peak around 2020, to judge from historical production and proved reserves. Estimations based on a logistic (Hubbert) curve give almost the same result. Even if we assume, with great optimism, that ultimate reserves will be double the present proved reserves, such amounts would only delay the peak by a few years; even then, if extraction rates increase accordingly, the duration of the reserves will remain about the same (Höök, Zittel, Schindler, & Aleklett, 2010, June 8).

Other types of fossil fuels hardly deserve mentioning. The alleged abundance of natural gas, for example, including that derived from shale, is a myth perpetuated by an industry determined to gull investors (Orlov, 2012, May 8).

The future of metals will be somewhat better than that of fossil fuels. Global depletion of metals is somewhat difficult to determine, partly because recycling complicates the issues, partly because trade goes on in all directions, and partly because one material can sometimes be replaced by another. Nevertheless, the Earth probably does not have enough exploitable copper, zinc, and platinum, for example, even with improved recycling and better technology, for the world's "developing countries" to use as much per capita as the US (Gordon, Bertram, & Graedel, 2006, January 31).

Within the US, however, most types of metals are actually past their peak dates of production. These include bauxite (peaking in 1943), copper (1998), iron ore (1951), magnesium (1966), rare earth metals (1984), tin (1945), titanium (1964), and zinc (1969) (USGS, 2005). The depletion of all metals in the US continues in spite of recycling. Without the fossil fuels to import metals from other countries, US industry would have slowed down long ago, not that it is much to speak of nowadays.

The world's iron ore may seem infinitely abundant, but it is not. In the past it was ores such as natural hematite (Fe2O3) that were being mined. For thousands of years, also, tools were produced by smelting bog iron, mainly goethite, FeO(OH), in clay cylinders only a meter or so in height. Modern mining must rely more heavily on taconite, a flint-like ore containing less than 30 percent magnetite and hematite (Gever et al, 1991). Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, in other words, and only the less-tractable forms such as taconite will be available when the oil-powered machinery has disappeared. With the types of iron ore used in the past, it would have been possible to reproduce at least the medieval level of blacksmithing in future ages, but with taconite it will not.

The problem of the loss of these resources will, of course, be received in the same manner as most other large-scale disasters: widespread denial, followed by a rather catatonic apathy. The centuries will pass, and a day will come when, like the early Anglo-Saxons, people will look around at the scattered stones and regard them as "the work of giants."


Campbell, C. J. & Laherrère, J. H. (1998, March). The end of cheap oil. Scientific American.

Gever, J., Kaufmann, R., & Skole, D. (1991). Beyond oil: The threat to food and fuel in the coming decades. 3rd ed. Ed. C. Vorosmarty. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Gordon, R. B., Bertram, M., & Graedel, T. E. (2006, January 31). Metal stocks and sustainability. Retrieved from http://www.mindfully.org/Sustainability/2006/Metal-Stocks-Gordon31jan06.htm

Heinberg, R. (2009). Blackout. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society.

------. (2010, May). China's coal bubble . . . and how it will deflate U.S. efforts to develop “clean coal.” MuseLetter #216. Retrieved from http://richardheinberg.com/216-chinas-coal-bubble-and-how-it-will-deflate-u-s-efforts-to-develop-clean-coal

Höök, M., & Aleklett, K. (2009, May 1). Historical trends in American coal production and a possible future outlook. International Journal of Coal Geology. Retrieved from www.tsl.uu.se/uhdsg/Publications/USA_Coal.pdf

Orlov. D. (2012, May 8 ). Shale gas: the view from Russia. Club Orlov.. Retrieved from: http://cluborlov.blogspot.ca/2012/05/shale-gas-view-from-russia.html

Simmons, M. R. (2006). Twilight in the desert: The coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Smil, V. (2009, September 17). The iron age & coal-based coke: A neglected case of fossil-fuel dependence. Master Resource. Retrieved from http://masterresource.org/2009/09/a-forgotten-case-of-fossil-fuel-dependence-the-iron-age-requires-carbon-based-energy-like-it-or-not/

------, Zittel, W., Schindler, J., & Aleklett, K. (2010, June 8). Global coal production outlooks based on a logistic model. Retrieved from: http://www.tsl.uu.se/uhdsg /Publications/Coal_Fuel.pdf

USGS. (2005). Historical statistics for mineral and material commodities in the United States. Data Series 140. Retrieved from http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is prjgoodchild[at] gmail.com




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