Filling Your Tank With… Coal?

In sometimes animated and extensive-ranging testimony before the Senate Power and Pure Sources Committee on Tuesday morning, witnesses and lawmakers debated the relative merits of putting coal within the nation’s gas tanks.

“I consider that coal is America’s most affordable, obtainable, reliable and safe source of vitality,” declared Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), whose personal coal-pleasant American Various Fuels Act of 2011, introduced two weeks in the past, was on the committee’s morning agenda. “And utilizing America’s coal sources as a transportation gas will decrease our dependence on international sources of oil and really strengthen our national safety.”

Turning coal into a liquid gas is a sizzling subject. The coal business, backed by friendly Republicans in Congress, is pushing a suite of bills that will give liquified coal fuels, which can be utilized as substitutes for oil, a foothold within the market. One invoice, floated within the Home final month, would literally require that liquid gas squeezed from coal be blended, in increasing quantities, straight into the nation’s aviation, motorized vehicle, house heating and boiler gas over coming many years.

Some analysts say that if done properly, and with the precise regulatory and environmental protections, such fuels may have a task to play in a diversified home power mix.

However critics argue that the required environmental protections don’t really exist, and that turning to coal for any fresh function, relatively than working wholeheartedly to go away the stuff perpetually in the bottom, simply does not make sense. They say the push to turn coal into liquid fuels is a cynical ploy by a dying and desperate business, and, furthermore, one which depends on Nazi-era technology that has no redeeming social or environmental traits worthy of new public investment.

“We have to send the sign that the brand new fuels we begin to commercialize cannot cause extra issues than they repair,” stated Brian Siu, a coverage analyst with the Pure Sources Protection Counsel who supplied testimony earlier than a Senate subcommittee on the issue Tuesday, in an interview with The Huffington Post. “Why should we be be serving to a expertise to get of the ground that’s vastly worse for the environment and for the local weather than we already have immediately?”

A brand new PUSH FOR AN Outdated Technology

Whether or not coal-to-liquid fuels, as they’re identified in the business, are vastly worse, considerably worse, on par with or — in some purposes — marginally better for the climate or the environment than different fuels will depend on a bunch of variables. These embrace how the coal was mined, whether the coal is being combined with some other feedstock — forest trimmings, say, or grass — whether or not the carbon dioxide is being captured and saved when the stuff is burned, and, in fact, the alternate options to which it is being compared.

However whatever benefits its supporters may conjure, there’s little query that the historic narrative resulting in coal’s eventual refinement into liquid gas is characterized by desperation more than inspiration.

The commonest chemical process for creating synthetic fuels, identified because the Fischer-Tropsch process, was developed in Germany within the early a part of the twentieth century. Nazis used it to convert natural gas and coal into liquid diesel to keep their tanks running as conventional gas provide lines were blocked. The know-how later migrated to South Africa, which, upon finding itself severed from world oil supplies throughout boycotts of its apartheid policies, relied closely on coal-to-liquids for its transportation sector.

But these types of conversions are neither cheap nor clear, using copious quantities of water and energy — and sending up significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions in the method — to render a useable liquid gas. In response to the World Coal Association, South Africa, which has been producing the stuff in industrial portions because the 1950s, was lengthy the only person of coal-to-liquids at a commercial scale, although it has recently been joined by China.

For a lot of the world, there have simply been simpler, cheaper — and cleaner — methods to obtain transport gas, not less than till now.


There are currently no services producing commercial amounts of liquid gas from coal within the United States, in accordance with Nicholas Paduano, an vitality economist at the U.S. Division of Power (D.O.E.), though a number of plants are in various phases of planning and improvement. This includes a $four billion coal-to-gasoline facility in Mingo County, W.Va., that held a groundbreaking ceremony early last month.

One other coal-to-liquids project, Medicine Bow Gas & Power in Wyoming, is beneath consideration for a federal mortgage guarantee from the Division of Power. Headed up by a number of former Enron executives, the venture lately gained a favorable ruling from Wyoming Supreme Court, which upheld its air high quality permit after a problem from the Sierra Club.

A a lot-anticipated plant slated for jap Ohio has lately been struggling with financial woes.

Environmental groups within the U.S., meanwhile, have been mounting more and more pitched campaigns to head-off what they see as makes an attempt by the coal trade to achieve a beachhead in a completely new market. They don’t buy the argument that, beneath that right circumstances, liquified coal may be considered a clear alternative gas option.

“The issue is the claims for liquid coal do not always match up with the reality,” said Alex Moore, an activist with the environmental group Associates of the Earth. “They say should you sequester and store all the carbon emissions that the footprint could be much like typical gasoline, or that in the event that they use some mixture of biofuel with liquified coal the influence can be comparable, nevertheless it usually looks quite a bit like fudging the numbers. And in any case, it hides all the opposite environmental impacts related to mining, heavy water use, ecosystem destruction.”

If that is true, it is a failure of government and a failure of regulation, stated James T. Bartis, a scientist and coverage analyst with the RAND Company. Bartis, who was on hand Tuesday to testify earlier than the Senate Power and Pure Resources Committee, has conducted a number of studies on the relative merits of coal-to-liquids and other unconventional fossil fuels and come to the conclusion that they get an undeserved dangerous rap.

“U.S. federal power policies give very little assist to any alternative gas produced from coal or, for that matter, some other fossil energy supply,” Bartis informed the Senate committee on Tuesday. “In doing so, we forego the chance to develop a home business that has the potential to provide hundreds of thousands of barrels per day of alternative fuels that may reduce dependence on imported oil whereas not growing greenhouse gas emissions.”

In a separate cellphone name with The Huffington Post, Bartis recommended that federal power policy had too closely favored renewable fuels that are not nearly prepared for business-scale manufacturing, and that providing some support for coal-to-liquids makes sense economically.

“The insurance policies we’ve got as we speak are very partial to only a really small a part of the chance before us,” Bartis said.


By way of greenhouse gas emissions, the simple tale of the tape reveals coal-to-liquids to be in pretty grim territory. Produced without any sort of mechanism to capture and store emissions, greenhouse gasses arising from coal-to-liquids production are greater than a hundred % higher than standard petroleum gas, in keeping with estimates compiled by the Environmental Safety Agency.

With carbon capture and sequestration, the agency puts emissions of coal-to-liquids at about four p.c higher than — or roughly on par with — petroleum-based mostly fuels. A D.O.E. study from 2009 means that the emissions is likely to be barely below that of petroleum.

Bartis and others say these emissions variations could be reduced even additional — to close to zero, in fact — by constructing plants that mix each coal and biomass. “Whether this know-how will attain its potential depends crucially on gaining early manufacturing expertise — together with manufacturing with carbon seize and sequestration — in the United States,” Bartis noted in his written testimony Tuesday. “To our information, no company of the U.S. authorities has introduced plans to promote early business use of [such] fuels derived from a mixture of coal and biomass.”

Part of the rationale the government hasn’t gotten behind that effort is simply financial. Highly refined products like liquified coal make no sense when oil is cheap. As oil prices rise, nonetheless, unconventional and pricier sources become more engaging. A recent D.O.E. evaluation reckoned that coal-to-liquids could be financial when crude oil prices are at or above $86 a barrel. A nine-to-one coal-biomass combine would make sense when oil was at $93 a barrel, in keeping with the identical report, with fewer emissions.

The value for a barrel of crude stays within the $one hundred vary in the present day.

But environmental groups argue that such blunt economics fail to capture the total commerce-offs associated with nurturing a brand new marketplace for coal.

According to a report from the Nationwide Analysis Council, for example, vital will increase in coal mining can be wanted to fulfill a concerted foray into the transportation sector. “If coal mining activities in the U.S. increase by 50 percent — a further 580 million tons of coal mined each year,” that report concluded, “up to three million barrels of gas per day might be produced. To realize this, two or three new coal-to-gas plants would need to be built each year over the following 20 years.”

Such enormous will increase in mining exercise would include all manner of ancillary prices to communities, critics point out — from native water contamination to habitat destruction.

And environmental advocates like Brian Siu add that there aren’t any rules in place to guarantee that any of the very best-practices the trade says can make coal-to-liquids a viable various gas from a local weather perspective — from carbon seize applied sciences to biomass mixing — will actually be deployed.

“We don’t have any type of economic system-huge carbon limitations, nothing that’s been adopted by Congress,” Siu said. And until something like that comes along, he stated, what’s to ensure that plant owners will trouble with the added expense?


Supporters of coal-to-liquids say a kind of inexperienced-chauvinism has trickled into federal policy, they usually’ve lately zeroed in on what they see as a particularly nettlesome barrier tucked into the Vitality Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Signed by President George W. Bush simply previous to leaving workplace, the regulation included, amid a wide range of other effectivity and power efficiency requirements for vehicles and buildings and lightbulbs, a seemingly innocuous procurement provision aimed toward greening the federal automobile fleet.

But that provision, known as Part 526, instantly caught in the craw of the fossil gas industries — and perhaps none so much as the coal trade. Section 526 basically forbids federal agencies — including the gas-thirsty navy — from coming into into contracts to purchase alternative or synthetic fuels which have an even bigger greenhouse gas footprint than typical petroleum-primarily based gas.

Supporters of the availability see it as being expertise neutral. Experiment with different fuels, the rule seems to suggest — just do not use anything that can be worse for the local weather than what we have already got.

Opponents of the availability say it discriminates against tricked-out coal and different unconventional fossil fuels, together with oil culled from the tar sands of Alberta.

The stakes are higher than they may appear. Although accounting for lower than 2 % of the nation’s total consumption of 19 million barrels a day, the federal authorities and military can present an vital pre-business incubator for experimental fuels.

Environmental advocates want these alt-gas contracts to be the sole province of local weather-pleasant stuff derived from the likes of algae and switchgrass.

The coal trade says such provisions are unfair, and Barrasso’s invoice is hardly alone in making an attempt to undo them. The coal-to-liquids lobby, for instance, gained renewal of a key tax credit as part of the broad federal tax reduce package deal passed in December.

One other measure, introduced in the Home final month, goes beyond the federal car fleet, requiring that liquified coal be blended in increasing quantities straight into the nation’s aviation, motorcar, residence heating and boiler gas stock.

The extra comprehensive Roadmap for America’s Energy Future, sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes, (R-Calif.), and now being reviewed by the Home Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, goes even further, requiring the Defense Department to “develop, construct, and operate a professional coal-to-liquid facility.”

Section 526 is also currently focused within the House version of the Nationwide Protection Authorization Act, which is scheduled for markup on June thirteen — although it is value noting that a minimum of one branch of the military desires nothing to do with liquified coal fuels.

And this is de facto what troubles environmentalists most about the current tenor of the talk on Capitol Hill: The coal lobby and its supporters in Congress appear be contradicting themselves — notably in taking aim at provisions like 526. Coal-to-liquids supporters, in any case, argue that the expertise, if executed correctly, should be no worse — and perhaps even marginally better from a greenhouse gas perspective — than plain outdated petroleum-based gas.

But if that is the case, why ought to provisions like Section 526, which favors no particular know-how and only stipulates that an alternative gas be no worse than oil, be thought of a barrier to liquified coal?

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In response to an email query from a reporter for clarification on this point, Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for Sen. Barrasso, pointed to testimony given by Bartis. “As Dr.

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