I have an op-ed on liquid coal on the Guardian's opinion site. I've gotten permission to reprint it here:
They say the first thing you should do when you find yourself in a hole is stop digging. But if there's one thing the coal industry loves, it's digging.
Generating electricity by burning coal has ravaged the climate, but it's made coal barons in the US rich. They worried for a while that global warming would mean the end of the gravy train - they're the ones who started the massive climate-change disinformation campaign back in the 1980s - but instead, to their delight, they've discovered that climate change is a gravy train itself.
They're being showered with government subsidies to develop and deploy carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), whereby the emissions from coal-fired power plants are collected and stored underground. It's technologically precarious and enormously expensive, but with taxpayers footing the bill, what the hell?
Now they've got a new idea, and it's audacious. They want taxpayers to fund the creation of another coal industry, one that that would generate liquid transportation fuel from coal (coal-to-liquids, or CTL). Of course, liquefying coal is every bit as dirty as burning it for electricity, so - this is the brilliant bit - they want US taxpayers to simultaneously fund a new set of carbon sequestration projects.
In one fell swoop, using public money to create a dirty industry and public money to clean it up, skimming hefty profits off the top. It's like a two-rail bank shot of rent-seeking, a bamboozle almost without precedent. Even the ethanol guys must be impressed. You'd almost have to admire it, if it weren't your money and your climate at stake.
Here's what's on offer in various energy bill amendments put forward recently in the House and Senate: $10bn in direct loans, $3bn in loan guarantees, and $200m in direct grants to CTL plants; a mandate for 21bn gallons of liquid coal by 2022; a 51-cent tax credit for every gallon of liquid coal sold; automatic subsidies in the event the price of oil falls below $40; and finally, 25-year contracts to sell fuel to the US air force.
The subsidies under discussion got so extravagant that Senator Jeff Bingaman offered a $10bn amendment in order to, according to the New York Times, "fend off demands from coal-state lawmakers for bigger subsidies." You could do worse than a $10bn consolation prize.
Thanks to an outbreak of good sense among the Democratic leadership, these amendments have been beaten back, at least temporarily. But Big Coal and its legislative water carriers vow to keep trying. So let's take a quick look at the policy justifications they put forward.
Ok, there's only one: "energy independence." The coal belongs to us, not to scary brown people!
But just how much independence can CTL get us? Researchers at MIT recently looked into it. They determined that to reduce US petrol consumption by 10%, we'd have to invest $70bn in CTL plants. And that's without capturing and sequestering the carbon. Sequestration is a must, though - without it, CTL would produce double the greenhouse gas emissions of refining and burning gasoline (with it, about 10% more). Nobody knows exactly how much adding CCS will cost, so let's be conservative and round that number up to $100bn.
Let's do a little back-of-the-envelope maths (all numbers approximate). About half of the 7.5bn barrels of crude oil the US consumes a year - 3.75bn - go to gasoline. The 10% of that we'd save using CTL is 375m barrels. But only 20% of our oil is imported from the Persian Gulf. (And that's what we mean by "independence," right? Nobody's talking about gaining independence from Canada and Mexico.) And 20% of 375m is 75m.
So for $100bn, we'd import 75m fewer barrels a year from the Persian Gulf - that's around $1,300 per barrel. By comparison, the going rate for crude oil is about $70 per barrel.
That's some damn expensive independence!
Then there's human and environmental costs of coal mining - the National Academy of Sciences just reported that we likely have about 100 years or less worth of coal left in the US, and what's left is lower quality, harder to reach, and dirtier and more dangerous to mine. And then there's CTL's intensive water use - meeting the 21bn-gallon mandate would mean coming up with 210bn gallons of water, not an easy feat in the western states where coal is still cheap.
And just for kicks, let's toss in the moral cost of rewarding an industry with a century-long record of buying politicians, breaking laws, shirking safety regulations, siphoning money out of poor states and willfully obfuscating on the subject of climate change (just a few months ago, a memo was leaked showing that coal companies are still pouring massive money toward disinformation campaigns).
Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa used CTL because they were cut off from oil imports and without alternatives. But the US has alternatives: conservation, fuel efficiency, plug-in hybrid and electric cars, cellulosic ethanol, petro-free organic agriculture, land-use changes, public transit, and on and on. Any one of these options would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make us more energy independent, far more cost-effectively than CTL.
We're stuck in this hole with Big Coal. The very least we can do is refrain from handing it another shovel.