CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In new campaign ads criticizing the Obama administration's coal policies, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney cites an estimate of the nation's remaining coal reserves that has been increasingly questioned as overly optimistic.
One of two new Romney ads includes footage of his visit last month to an Ohio coal mine, with a voiceover of a Romney speech where he says, "We have 250 years of coal, why wouldn't we use it?"
Various industry publications have cited that same estimate, saying, "The United States has more than a 250-year-supply of coal if it continues using coal at the same rate at which it uses coal today."
But in a major report five years ago, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the best estimate it could confirm was that U.S. coal reserves would last less than half that long.
"The United States is endowed with a vast amount of coal," said the report, written by a panel of geologists, engineers and industry officials for the National Academy's National Research Council.
"Despite significant uncertainties in generating reliable estimates of the nation's coal resources and reserves, there are sufficient economically mineable reserves to meet anticipated needs through 2030," said the report, written at the request of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
"Further into the future, there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation's needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption," the report said. "However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted suggestion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years."
Questions about coal reserve figures and future production forecasts are important, especially in the Appalachian coalfields. A variety of factors have the region's mine operators struggling and miners losing their jobs, and experts project major production declines during the next quarter century.
Along with stiff competition from low-priced natural gas and from other coal basins, experts have long warned of an impending downturn in Central Appalachian coal because much of the region's highest quality and easiest-to-produce coal has been mined out.
"In general, the remaining reserve potential is in thinner, deeper coal beds that are of poorer general quality than the coal that has already been mined," Robert C. Milici, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, wrote a dozen years ago in the International Journal of Coal Geology.