Of the fossil fuels coal has long been assumed to be the most plentiful, even the most pessimistic forecasters having acknowledged a global lifetime of centuries for known reserves. The determination of the emerging giant economies of China and India and of the USA to fuel themselves through coal-burning seems inevitable if highly risky for the climate. But that depends on coal remaining the cheapest fuel, largely because of the sheer abundance of supplies. A recent commentary on coal (Heinberg, R. & Fridley, D. 2010. The end of cheap coal. Nature, v. 268, p. 367-369) suggests that there is a growing tendency for reserve estimates to decrease as geologists factor in practical restrictions – place, depth, seam thickness and quality – on feasibility under current mining conditions, instead of just looking at known masses of coal. Astonishingly, the end-19th century estimate of five thousand years of US coal supplies dropped to about 400 years by 1974 and is currently judged to be 240 years. China and India look likely to have less than 60 years-worth left. On top of that, the widely publicized turn to carbon capture and storage (CCS)for ‘clean-coal’ future supplies will inevitably drive-up prices of coal-fired energy. The two main factors in this remarkable transformation of ‘King Coal’ are fundamental economic forces in capitalism and the increasing refusal of miners to accept dangerous working conditions. The second is especially the case for China, where most coal is deep-mined; in the late 1990s it saw a drive to close down unsafe mines that caused production to fall, although it has greatly accelerated this century – further driving down coal’s lifetime there. It seems from this analysis that any realistic hope for a CCS-based coal economy, especially in China and India, depends on declining safety and environmental standards in their largely underground mines, which in turn depends on the highly unlikely willingness of their workforces to accept worse conditions.