(Forbes) I have seen the handwriting on the wall for the coal industry for more than a decade. Not only is coal the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, it is also the fuel that has the greatest number of potential replacements. Renewables may ultimately scale to displace a substantial fraction of our coal consumption, but it’s natural gas and nuclear power that spell the beginning of coal’s demise. Given the urgency with which the world is trying to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas and nuclear power could legitimately displace the power we currently produce from coal. In fact, this summer natural gas did overtake coal for the first time to become the leading source of electricity in the U.S.
Thus, those who argue about peak demand scenarios for coal consumption have some justification for that argument. There are scalable replacements for coal, and there is widespread legislation that will speed up that transition. Coal demand will soon peak and begin to decline because there are lower-carbon alternatives. That’s why I have consistently advised investors to avoid coal companies like Peabody Energy BTU +0.00%Corporation (NYSE: BTU) and Arch Coal Inc (NYSE: ACI), which have seen their market value obliterated over the past 5 years.
But the peak demand argument falls apart for petroleum. The difference between coal and oil is there is simply no scalable alternative to petroleum. The cars, airplanes, ships, and heavy trucks that make up the global transportation system are almost exclusively dependent on petroleum. Further, our dependence on petroleum continues to grow.