Geologic Groundwork-How USGS Coal Assessments Assist EIA's Coal Forecasts

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It is difficult to overstate the importance of energy to the American economy.  Managing this vital sector depends on knowing how many energy resources we have, how many we use and need, and how these resources are transported

Image shows coal being loaded into trucks at a coal mine
Coal is loaded into trucks at the Trapper Mine in northwest Colorado.
(Credit: David C. Scott, USGS. Public domain.)

For instance, in just one part of the energy sector—coal—the United States consumed just under 800 million short tons in 2015, which supplied a little over 30 percent of the Nation’s electricity. Those numbers come from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, where Coal and Uranium Analysis team lead Greg Adams works.

“My team provides the public with projections of U.S. short and long-term coal production and market conditions by major coal producing basin, including coal transportation,” said Adams.

These projections are grounded in massive amounts of data collected on the U.S. and international coal industries, including everything from the potential resources in the ground to the finished products provided to power plants as fuel for electricity.

Laying the Geologic Groundwork

Some of that information comes from U.S. Geological Survey assessments of coal basins in the United States. The USGS has long provided estimates of remaining coal resources, which are based on minimum thickness and maximum depth of cover parameters.

Image is a chart showing the estimated tonnage of each resource type in the Powder River Basin
A chart showing the estimated tonnage of each resource type in the Powder River Basin according to the 2015 USGS assessment: https://go.usa.gov/xnY4R 
(Public domain.)

However, beginning with the 2015 assessment of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, the USGS began to calculate recoverable coal resources and coal reserves from the remaining coal resources.  Recoverable coal resources are calculated by subtracting coal resources that are lost due to environmental, societal, or legal restrictions, as well as those that are lost due to geological constraints and mining technology limitations.  Coal reserves, meanwhile, are the portion of recoverable coal resources that can be extracted profitably.

Adams welcomes the changes.

“We are working with the coal assessment project at USGS to align our reserve base definitions in an attempt to timely leverage these updates by USGS to ensure the public is adequately informed in a cost-effective manner,” he said.      

Image shows coal fields of the conterminous united states color-coded by the type of coal
A map of the various coal fields of the conterminous United States.
(Public domain.)

The USGS data will join that of state geological surveys to support the publication of EIA’s U.S. Annual Energy Outlook, Short-Term Energy Outlook, and International Energy Outlook products. These are then used by policy makers, industry analysts, electric utilities, other government agencies, academia, and the general public to better inform decisions pertaining to the energy sector.

Even in an industry with as long a history as coal has had, it’s important to Adams that the information provided by EIA keeps pace with the changes that are occurring.

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