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Filling Your Tank With... Coal?

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In sometimes animated and wide-ranging testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday morning, witnesses and lawmakers debated the relative merits of putting coal in the nation's gas tanks.

"I believe that coal is America's most affordable, available, reliable and secure source of energy," declared Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), whose own coal-friendly American Alternative Fuels Act of 2011, introduced two weeks ago, was on the committee's morning agenda. "And using America's coal resources as a transportation fuel will decrease our dependence on foreign sources of oil and really strengthen our national security."

Turning coal into a liquid fuel is a hot topic. The coal industry, backed by friendly Republicans in Congress, is pushing a suite of bills that would give liquified coal fuels, which can be used as substitutes for oil, a foothold in the marketplace. One bill, floated in the House last month, would literally require that liquid fuel squeezed from coal be blended, in increasing amounts, directly into the nation's aviation, motor vehicle, home heating and boiler fuel over coming decades.

Some analysts say that if done properly, and with the right regulatory and environmental protections, such fuels could have a role to play in a diversified domestic energy mix.

But critics argue that the necessary environmental protections don't really exist, and that turning to coal for any fresh purpose, rather than working wholeheartedly to leave the stuff forever in the ground, simply doesn't make sense. They say the push to turn coal into liquid fuels is a cynical ploy by a dying and desperate industry, and, moreover, one that relies on Nazi-era technology that has no redeeming social or environmental characteristics worthy of new public investment.

"We need to send the signal that the new fuels we start to commercialize can't cause more problems than they fix," said Brian Siu, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Counsel who provided testimony before a Senate subcommittee on the issue Tuesday, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "Why should we be be helping a technology to get of the ground that is vastly worse for the environment and for the climate than we already have today?"

A NEW PUSH FOR AN OLD TECHNOLOGY

Whether coal-to-liquid fuels, as they are known in the industry, are vastly worse, somewhat worse, on par with or -- in some applications -- marginally better for the climate or the environment than other fuels depends on a host of variables. These include how the coal was mined, whether the coal is being combined with any other feedstock -- forest trimmings, say, or grass -- whether or not the carbon dioxide is being captured and stored when the stuff is burned, and, of course, the alternatives to which it's being compared.

But whatever benefits its supporters may conjure, there's little question that the historical narrative leading to coal's eventual refinement into liquid fuel is characterized by desperation more than inspiration.

The most common chemical process for creating synthetic fuels, known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, was developed in Germany in the early part of the 20th century. Nazis used it to convert natural gas and coal into liquid diesel to keep their tanks running as conventional fuel supply lines were blocked. The technology later migrated to South Africa, which, upon finding itself severed from world oil supplies during boycotts of its apartheid policies, relied heavily on coal-to-liquids for its transportation sector.

But these sorts of conversions are neither cheap nor clean, using copious amounts of water and energy -- and sending up significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions in the process -- to render a useable liquid fuel. According to the World Coal Association, South Africa, which has been producing the stuff in commercial quantities since the 1950s, was long the sole user of coal-to-liquids at a commercial scale, though it has lately been joined by China.

For most of the world, there have simply been easier, cheaper -- and cleaner -- ways to obtain transport fuel, at least until now.

PLANTS ON THE DRAWING BOARD

There are currently no facilities producing commercial amounts of liquid fuel from coal in the United States, according to Nicholas Paduano, an energy economist at the U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E.), although several plants are in various stages of planning and development. This includes a $4 billion coal-to-gasoline facility in Mingo County, W.Va., that held a groundbreaking ceremony early last month.

Another coal-to-liquids project, Medicine Bow Fuel & Power in Wyoming, is under consideration for a federal loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. Headed up by several former Enron executives, the project recently won a favorable ruling from Wyoming Supreme Court, which upheld its air quality permit after a challenge from the Sierra Club.

A much-anticipated plant slated for eastern Ohio has lately been struggling with financial woes.

Environmental groups in the U.S., meanwhile, have been mounting increasingly pitched campaigns to head-off what they see as attempts by the coal industry to gain a beachhead in an entirely new market. They don't buy the argument that, under that right circumstances, liquified coal can be considered a clean alternative fuel option.

"The problem is the claims for liquid coal don't always match up with the reality," said Alex Moore, an activist with the environmental group Friends of the Earth. "They say if you sequester and store all the carbon emissions that the footprint would be similar to conventional gasoline, or that if they use some combination of biofuel with liquified coal the impact would be comparable, but it often looks a lot like fudging the numbers. And in any case, it hides all the other environmental impacts associated with mining, heavy water use, ecosystem destruction."

If that's true, it's a failure of government and a failure of regulation, said James T. Bartis, a scientist and policy analyst with the RAND Corporation. Bartis, who was on hand Tuesday to testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has conducted several studies on the relative merits of coal-to-liquids and other unconventional fossil fuels and come to the conclusion that they get an undeserved bad rap.

"U.S. federal energy policies give very little support to any alternative fuel produced from coal or, for that matter, any other fossil energy source," Bartis told the Senate committee on Tuesday. "In doing so, we forego the opportunity to develop a domestic industry that has the potential to produce millions of barrels per day of alternative fuels that can reduce dependence on imported oil while not increasing greenhouse gas emissions."

In a separate phone call with The Huffington Post, Bartis suggested that federal energy policy had too heavily favored renewable fuels that aren't nearly ready for commercial-scale production, and that providing some support for coal-to-liquids makes sense economically.

"The policies we have today are very partial to only a very small part of the opportunity before us," Bartis said.

TAKING MEASURE

In terms 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 more than 100 percent higher than conventional petroleum fuel, according to estimates compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.

With carbon capture and sequestration, the agency puts emissions of coal-to-liquids at about 4 percent higher than -- or roughly on par with -- petroleum-based fuels. A D.O.E. study from 2009 suggests that the emissions might be slightly below that of petroleum.

Bartis and others say these emissions differences can be reduced even further -- to near zero, in fact -- by building plants that combine both coal and biomass. "Whether this technology will reach its potential depends crucially on gaining early production experience -- including production with carbon capture and sequestration -- in the United States," Bartis noted in his written testimony Tuesday. "To our knowledge, no agency of the U.S. government has announced plans to promote early commercial use of [such] fuels derived from a mixture of coal and biomass."

Part of the reason 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, however, unconventional and pricier sources become more attractive. A recent D.O.E. analysis reckoned that coal-to-liquids would be economic when crude oil prices are at or above $86 a barrel. A nine-to-one coal-biomass mix would make sense when oil was at $93 a barrel, according to the same report, with fewer emissions.

The price for a barrel of crude remains in the $100 range today.

But environmental groups argue that such blunt economics fail to capture the full trade-offs associated with nurturing a new market for coal.

According to a report from the National Research Council, for example, significant increases in coal mining would be needed to meet a concerted foray into the transportation sector. "If coal mining activities in the U.S. increase by 50 percent –- an additional 580 million tons of coal mined each year," that report concluded, "up to 3 million barrels of fuel per day could be produced. To achieve this, two or three new coal-to-fuel plants would need to be built each year over the next 20 years."

Such huge increases in mining activity would come with all manner of ancillary costs to communities, critics point out -- from local water contamination to habitat destruction.

And environmental advocates like Brian Siu add that there are no rules in place to guarantee that any of the best-practices the industry says can make coal-to-liquids a viable alternative fuel from a climate perspective -- from carbon capture technologies to biomass blending -- will actually be deployed.

"We don't have any sort of economy-wide carbon limitations, nothing that's been adopted by Congress," Siu said. And until something like that comes along, he said, what's to ensure that plant owners will bother with the added expense?

DISMANTLING FEDERAL ROADBLOCKS

Supporters of coal-to-liquids say a sort of green-chauvinism has trickled into federal policy, and they've lately zeroed in on what they see as a particularly nettlesome barrier tucked into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Signed by President George W. Bush just prior to leaving office, the law included, amid a variety of other efficiency and energy performance standards for cars and buildings and lightbulbs, a seemingly innocuous procurement provision aimed at greening the federal vehicle fleet.

But that provision, known as Section 526, immediately stuck in the craw of the fossil fuel industries -- and perhaps none so much as the coal industry. Section 526 essentially forbids federal agencies -- including the fuel-thirsty military -- from entering into contracts to buy alternative or synthetic fuels that have a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional petroleum-based fuel.

Supporters of the provision see it as being technology neutral. Experiment with alternative fuels, the rule seems to suggest -- just don't use anything that would be worse for the climate than what we already have.

Opponents of the provision say it discriminates against tricked-out coal and other unconventional fossil fuels, including oil culled from the tar sands of Alberta.

The stakes are higher than they may appear. Though accounting for less than 2 percent of the nation's total consumption of 19 million barrels a day, the federal government and military can provide an important pre-commercial incubator for experimental fuels.

Environmental advocates want those alt-fuel contracts to be the sole province of climate-friendly stuff derived from the likes of algae and switchgrass.

The coal industry says such provisions are unfair, and Barrasso's bill is hardly alone in trying to undo them. The coal-to-liquids lobby, for example, won renewal of a key tax credit as part of the broad federal tax cut package passed in December.

Another measure, introduced in the House last month, goes beyond the federal vehicle fleet, requiring that liquified coal be blended in increasing amounts directly into the nation's aviation, motor vehicle, home heating and boiler fuel stock.

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

Section 526 is also currently targeted in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is scheduled for markup on June 13 -- though it's worth noting that at least one branch of the military wants nothing to do with liquified coal fuels.

And this is really what troubles environmentalists most about the current tenor of the debate on Capitol Hill: The coal lobby and its supporters in Congress seem be contradicting themselves -- particularly in taking aim at provisions like 526. Coal-to-liquids supporters, after all, argue that the technology, if executed properly, should be no worse -- and perhaps even marginally better from a greenhouse gas perspective -- than plain old petroleum-based fuel.

But if that's the case, why should provisions like Section 526, which favors no particular technology and only stipulates that an alternative fuel be no worse than oil, be considered a barrier to liquified coal?

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. Bartis said yesterday," Lawrimore wrote, "'[Section 526] gives the investment community a signal that the government is opposed to, or doesn't favor, coal-to-liquids.'"

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