Converting to coal...Life Without Oil

NatGeo had a show on tonight called Life Without Oil, which proposed a scenario where suddenly, all the oil in the ground disappeared. I realize this is probably a code for the standard Peak Oil handwringing, but there were some of what struck me as possible glaring omissions from the show so I thought I’d ask here. The answers might be GQ style, but as the subject might get into a debate I figured I’d post it here. I can well imagine WHY the omissions were, well, omitted, but perhaps I’m not seeing the problems clearly…thus my questions.

Ok…so, in the show, all the oil suddenly and inexplicably disappeared from the ground. Above ground oil reserves and oil in transit (in pipelines and ships, etc) is still with us, but every drop in the ground that has yet to be pumped out is gone. This obviously has an over night effect on global markets, sending them crashing. It also forces the immediate rationing and seizure of all remaining oil assets by the various governments around the world. I can buy all that.

To continue with the story, people scramble to purchase the remaining gas, attempt to home brew their own substitutes, all the while the government tries to shift over to large scale farming of soy beans and corn to produce fuel (I’m glossing over quite a bit of heart rending story here, mind). Supposedly the power grid completely fails (within a few days or weeks), since coal can no longer be delivered to power plants (and in Florida it completely collapses because they use oil for power, according to the show). Food can no longer be delivered, and we go into the whole cycle of civilization collapse (only to magically get through it to a kinder, greener world later on). But some things that aren’t mentioned are attempts to use coal as a fuel source…not, perhaps, for personal transport, but to prevent the whole power grid failure and starvation thing in the US. What would it take to build up an infrastructure for converting coal for use as a fuel source for transport for things like trains and trucks to move food and supplies?

Another glaring omission, IMHO, is that they never mention nuclear. Instead they focus on first bio-diesel created through corn/soy beans/etc, and later on algae based bio-diesel (and of course electric vehicles). But what would it entail to both keep the current nuclear plants running and to build new plants? Also, what would it take to build cargo ships with nuclear power plants, a la the US Navy? If the choice was starvation or going nuclear, would this be a viable option?

As with most of the shows lately on NatGeo there seemed a lot of holes in the plot, and it seemed pretty agenda driven (the end of the show is all goodness and light, as people move back into the cities, planting gardens in parking garages and driving light weight electric cars while enjoying the cleaner, CO2 free air, etc etc), so thought it might be an interesting thing to discuss.


Steam locomotives still exist in the United States, in fact Wiki claims there are still firms that manufacture them. I suspect they would immediately be pressed into service delivering the absolute top-priority freight shipments- possibly coal to power plants.

Yeah, that came to mind while I was watching the show as well. They never even suggested it, just emphasizing that modern rail runs on diesel, and without the diesel the power plants would all die withing a few days or weeks, even with rationing, presumably.

What I was really getting at though was coal gasification, I suppose…what would it take to convert over, and would it have been practical to do so? It’s another thing that they never mentioned at all, and was wondering if the reason they didn’t mention it was because it would have been impractical…or because they either didn’t think of it, or didn’t want to mention it because coal is such a dirty technology and, even faced with starvation and such, it would just be better to die than go to such a technology.


Meanwhile, while the steam locomotives are delivering coal to the power plants, you’d also start seeing catenary lines installed on the routes from the power plants to the coal mines (and eventually, all the other train routes, too). Diesel locomotives are all hybrids, and can run entirely on external electric power if it’s available.

Then there’s also “coal by wire”, where instead of shipping the coal across the country, you build the power plant right next to the mine, and just transport the electricity: There are several of those already, and they would continue to function just fine. As would all of the nuclear and hydroelectric plants. And nuclear-powered Navy ships can be rigged to provide emergency power to coastal areas, too. Electricity would probably also have to be rationed until the new infrastructure was in place, but there certainly wouldn’t be a complete collapse of the grid.

You’d also see coal used to produce gasoline and other hydrocarbons. There are a few plants for doing this already, and while the cost is of course higher than petroleum, it’s not all that much higher: The finished product ends up costing in the neighborhood of $5 a gallon. This would end up fueling those things that can’t really accept any substitute, like diesel trains on the coal runs that haven’t been electrified yet, and aircraft (though flight would probably be considered mostly an unaffordable luxury).

A good book on this subject is “Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller” by Jeff Rubin. It’s a nice, accessible read on the whole idea of peak oil and the consequences for the world.

One thing that happens when the oil runs out is cheap crap from China also stops, for good and for bad. We stop getting all that cheap crap from China, but North Americans start manufacturing locally again.

Not sure about the doomsday timelines - the US has 727mB of oil in stock. The other OECD countries all keep reserves at high level with total OECD stocks at 2,678mbbl, or 58 days.
Obviously depending on how they define ‘oil in the ground’ might eliminate the below ground storage of the SPR. If they mean 'not pumped out of a natural reservoir then teh SPR etc is available.
I geuss they also included natural gas in the dissapearing oil scenario.

Now if you have coal, you also have coalbed methane with about 100 trillin cubic feet of reserves in the US, so I would suspect that production could be ramped up pretty significantly

May be steam would be a very short term stop gap but I think the effort at large scale steamisation of the economy (yeah for made up words) would be better spent on CTL. I would imagin an all out effort in coal to liquids technology, initially it would not be very efficient, but when needs must ect.

If natural gas is out then fertiliser production is in the crapper closly followed by significant chunks of the world population. Coal bed methane may help out there.

This is what I came up with.

$6 billion to build a coal to oil plant that can make 80,000 barrels of oil a day. No idea on the timeline to build one of those.

Haven’t see the show, but the whole thing seems very wierd.

As Chronos mentioned, deisel electric trains can be rigged to run on electric power. Stuff the use of steam locos, just go electric. Australia already has an extensive electric rail network, for transporting coal mined with electric draglines and electric longwallers. So the actual supply of coal would be remain quite high.

The idea of using biodiesel is just farcical. It’s still debatable whether you can actually recover more energy than you need to put in, so it’s hardly a solution to the world’s power needs.

But we’ve certainly we’ve got loads of coal economically available to make oil. To try to put Wesley Clark’s contribution in context, it takes 6 billion dollars to build an 80, 000 barrel a day coal processing plant, compared to 10 billion dollars for a 300,000 barrel a day liquid crude refinery. Or in simple terms, coal oil costs a bit less than 2 1/2 times as much as liquid crude.

Looked at that way it suddenly doesn’t seem all that expensive. Sure it would have some major economic impacts if the price of oil increased 2.5 fold. However we’ve seen the price of oil increase almost 10-fold in the past 10 years, while the world’s economy has grown massively. So it’s not as though the increase need be crippling.

The only rub with using coal oil is that it would take time and funds to convert over, and the scenario in the OP posits some sort of magical transition. Thankfully in the real world that doesn’t happen.

And of course in the real world we have only used half of the world’s liquid crude, and we still have at least 10 times that amount available in the form shale and tar oil. Only after they have been exhausted do we even need to consider coal oil.

Cite? More oil is being discovered every year. And nobody’s looked at Antarctica yet.

To be perfectly honest, if they can run a carrier on nuke plants there is absolutely no reason you couldnt have nuke cargotainer ships, nuke cruise ships, small boutique nuke generation plants scattered all over - the navy’s nuke plants have a good long safety record, and there is no reason they couldn’t be plunked down on dry land and turned into civilian power generation and placed in civilian vessels for shipping and casual vacation use.

There is a nukes = death and destruction thing going on, people associate nukes with 3MI, meltdowns, china syndrome and bombs.Pretty much unwarranted. There is radiation all around us, it is even released from burning coal. Heck, you can get exposure from walking through Grand Central Station in New York - all that lovely new england granite surrounding you making zoomies … :rolleyes: Totally stupid.

Will the USGS satisfy you?

Security and cost would be an issue. They would probably have to be run by the Navy, and carry priority cargo on an emergency rationing basis.

Bullshit. There is no reason that the design should be a secret, other countries have nukes now. We have possibly the safest nuke plant design, so why shouldn’t we make it a marketable commodity to keep the world functioning. Honestly, I see no reason for the secrecy on a powerplant. Propeller design [that impinges on how quiet the sub can go, cavitation of the prop is a consideration] ok, but the powerplant has nothing to do with silence, just safety. The french sell everything but the commanding generals auntie and they haven’t been invaded or fallen yet.

And if we really wanted to, we could field a hell of a lot of nuke cargotainers - there is the possibility of an assload of jobs - we could enact universal service and crew a shitload of nuke cargotainer ships. No rationing needed then. Cargotainer ships with traditional powerplants run with seriously small crews, so a cargotainer ship would be overcrewed with the standard 120 crew of an american fast attack sub.

Not with data that’s from 1996.

I mean, if the USA started making its own TVs, appliances, tools, clothing, shoes, etc., we would have two very good things happen:
-lots of jobs for peopl-less pollution (from all those cargo ships shipping the stuff from China
We also would strengthen the US dollar, as China would no longer have a current account surplus of dollars.

The easy oil is almost used up. We discover more oil all the time, but it’s not sitting just under the surface in huge pools like the Saudi fields that are just about tapped out (not that they’re telling us they are, but the signs are all there). The new oil is oil like Alberta’s tar sands - billions and billions of gallons of oil there, that you have to steam out of tar sands to use, or offshore oil that you have to drill down through the ocean to get at, or Antarctica oil that is in far away, inhospitable, very difficult to get at fields.

OK, steam locomotives in their current form are out, unless you want to build a whole lot of them and break unit trains of coal up into, say, quarters. I worked on an analysis project of converting to full-sized coal locomotives, and it was possible except for emissions regulations. I’m sure in an emergency that could be solved, but we’re looking at years of lead-time. Nonetheless, coal-fired locomotives would be cheaper I reckon than extending hundreds of thousands of miles of electric lines to power trains.

Second, there is not enough mine development right now to support the massive amount of ramp-up for this scenario. Or even enough mine equipment; a lot of mine equipment is one-off or heavily customized for the mine. It might take 10 years or more to double current production.

Third, right now there is serious congestion on some pinch-points in the rail system for coal shipments. Everything from bridge daily train limits to just how many trains you can send through one pass right now, etc. These can be fixed, but will take time and serious money. And there are several parts of the US where you just cannot send a coal train due to the condition of the rail lines, or due to a complete lack of any rail lines. There’s always truck transport, but what do they run off?

Most power plants keep anywhere from a 15 to 60-day supply of coal on-site. Some can have 120-day+ supplies even. However, a significant amount of the reclaim equipment is powered by diesel fuel.

Given the contrived eco-terror premise of the programme, I’m not surprised.

This sounds like a major re-tooling crisis. Regardless of what your beliefs are on long-term oil use, I think everyone agrees we use a lot of oil now. So the question is would the amount of oil we happen to have on hand at any given moment (along with existing alternative fuels) be enough to enable us to convert over completely to alternative fuel systems?

My WAG is that this would not be the time to conduct research and development of new alternative fuel sources. You need to put all your resouces into expanding proven existing technology - which is going to mainly be coal. I’d say the priority should be building coal-powered locomotives, coal-powered steamships, coal-powered electricity generators, and fertilizer (I don’t know what the best substitute for oil is in fertilizer manufacturing). Then once you’ve stablized your economy at as high a possible level on basics like transportation, electricity, and food production, you can start developing more long-term alternatives.

I didn’t mean the design would be classified or that they would be accident prone. I meant that having tons of highly radioactive material mobile on the high seas is an invitation to hijacking by terrorists. And I didn’t mean that so few could be built that their service would be rationed, I meant that the cost of building and running one would be substantially higher than a conventionally powered ship, enough so that only high-value cargos could pay for themselves.

It’s already been done before.

I would like you to note the history of the icebreaker Lenin as an example of how things can go wrong. If something like that happened on a cruise ship or the like it would be disastrous.