Coal-To-Liquid Diesel Fuel: A Bipartisan Issue That Unites Environmentalists With Farmers

The Wall Street Journal has an article titled Energy Mandates Fuel a Rift (subscription only) that reminds us of the madness that breaks out when fans pour onto a soccer field to mix it up:- "...President Bush's push for domestic alternatives to imported oil has ignited a battle between coal interests and environmentalists -- and underscored tension between the goals of increasing U.S. energy security and curbing global warming." And, an unusual 'coal-ition of the unwilling' seems to have been forged, now that the President mentioned coal-to-liquids (CTL) diesel as an "alternative fuel": "Environmentalists are backed by the ethanol industry, which doesn't want the coal industry muscling in on a fuel mandate that ethanol producers now have to themselves". Prominent Democrats favor CTL. For example:- "Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat and White House hopeful, is a sponsor of the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act, which provides more tax incentives and federal loan guarantees for companies interested in making coal-based fuels". A few of us TreeHugger writers who are US citizens have conversed about the linkage of CTL, climate, and conservation and have come up with what we hope will be seen as constructive criticisms for evaluation of alternative liquid fuels. Good for any party. Have a look below the fold.Background:

Recently, Senator Barack Obama's website carried a press release with this announcement: "Obama, Lugar, Harkin Introduce Legislation to Increase Availability and Use of Renewable Fuels, Decrease U.S. Dependence on Foreign Oil." As noted on BlueClimate, however, "There was absolutely no mention of global warming or climate change, in the press release".

As Grist's Amanda Griscom Little woefully notes, on the day before the renewable fuel bill press release, Senator Barack Obama "joined with Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning to introduce the "Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007." Coal-to-liquid (CTL) technology uses a highly energy-intensive process to convert coal into diesel fuel for cars or jet fuel for airplanes -- an appealing prospect to the coal industry in Obama's home state of Illinois, but not to enviros and others concerned about global warming". Again from Grist: "According to an NRDC analysis, a 35-mpg car powered by the CTL fuel that's currently available would generate as much carbon dioxide pollution as a far less efficient 19-mpg car that runs on conventional gasoline." The reason? CTL emits relatively more C02 during the extraction and processing stage of making transportation fuel.

Via BlueClimate again, the Obama-Bunning press release describing the CTL bill states that: "This bipartisan piece of legislation is based on the bill first introduced by Senators Bunning and Obama last spring and would help create the infrastructure needed for large-scale production of Coal-to-Liquids (CTL) fuel. It is a comprehensive bill that expands tax incentives, creates planning assistance, and develops Department of Defense support for the domestic CTL industry".

Discussion:

If design improvements and Federal incentives eventually prove the CTL technology worthy of massive scale up, we'd be good for 50 years or more of diesel from a North American carbon source maybe. And that does little for gasoline. Unfortunately, that determination is a decade or more away.

Meanwhile, in the decade we have left to take climate change seriously, less than a quarter of US citizens take full advantage of compact fluorescent bulbs or have convenient access parking near a bicycle trail or bus stop. Many such simple options could be more immediately and reliably realized than speculative, unproven, long-range energy infrastructure projects, with the added benefit of helping to stabilize emissions now. The general principle: conservation stabilizes energy supply and climate.

Per the press release, the Department of Defense is said to be supportive of the Obama and Bunning draft bill; but no mention is made of USEPA involvement. This is not a reassuring situation, given recent requests to absolve DOD of continuing cleanup responsibilities for historic contamination, and in light of the hazardous waste certain to be produced by CTL operations (see below).

Regardless of clean-up capabilities included in the battery limits of a CTL process, there is never an "away" for the sulfur compounds, or the lead, arsenic, mercury, and halides that must be removed in initial CTL steps. Material is conserved. As a result, vast amounts of non-fuel materials -- potentially hazardous waste -- could be produced by a large-scale shift to CTL. No mention is made of how these will be managed; and again, no confirmation is given by Senator Obama's press release that EPA supports the bill.

When EPA does get involved, here are likely to be a few of the major questions to address. What is the suitability of CTL co-product streams for conversion into competitively priced chemical products. How much sulfuric acid does the world really need? Will the governent incentives be subsidizing the chemical industry? What market specs can be cost-effectively met?

Regarding the press releases from members of both parties, metaphorically speaking, it feels as if we are in a time machine set for the late 1960's and readying to see the Maumee River in Ohio again catch fire. The mind reels at the energy security grandstanding, and at what would seem to have been the failure to do a proper and balanced risk management review. The US can do better.

Recommendations:

1. CTL co-products, wastes, and emissions should be fully understood before tax incentives are put in place or public money committed for support of research, development, or commercialization. Do it for the total life cycle, from coal extraction, through benefaction, processing, refining, packaging, distribution, and end product consumption. Congress should make certain that a third party study is conducted and that draft and final reports are given the highest form of peer review: made available to all the people, well before the consideration of any bill.

2. A high level of carbon sequestration must be included as a pre-condition of proposed tax incentives, grants, loans, or development right transfers. Without this stipulation, the risk of "bait and switch" is simply too high.

3. The power of position means nothing when the future of the earth is at serious risk. "Bi-partisan" is a fine starting point, but we must keep in mind that a reduced carbon footprint is equally as important an endpoint as "energy security."

4. The sum of all tangible government support for CTL research, development, or commercialization, whether financial in nature or given as real property, should be able to provide a measurable net decrease in carbon dioxide emissions over the product life cycle. A typical unit function would be Kg of C02 emitted, on average, per vehicle mile traveled, reflecting fleet average efficiency.

5. We strongly suggest that Congressional staffs involved in bill preparation visit either the South African or existing US based CTL operations to learn as much as possible about how waste and co-product streams are managed. An experienced chemical engineer not currently employed within the industry should be invited along on the visit to assist with gathering information about economics, co-product yields, waste management, and reliability.

6. Finally, we recommend that government study and support of CTL should be done in parallel with bills aimed at other alternative energy technologies that have significant carbon "footprints." These include, at a minimum, food-crop based bio-diesel, food-crop based fuel ethanol, and cellulosic or "non-food" crop fuel ethanol.

Image credit: Boat Nerd

Tags: Alternative Energy

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