Spring in Washington is a lovely time, with cherry blossoms about to bloom and tourists trekking to the Mall to gaze at monuments. But our fair city is about to see a different influx this week, as attendees arrive for the so-called World Coal-to-Liquid Conference (March 25-27). Fair to say, the participants are single-mindedly focused on fulfilling their dream of using federal tax dollars to fund an entirely new industry devoted to converting America's coal reserves into liquid transporation fuel.
Yes, I'm talking about the folly of liquid coal.
It's notable that the sponsor of the conference -- the industry front group Coal-to-Liquids Coalition -- is billing the participants as "grassroots supporters" in the crusade to promote liquid coal as an alternative transportation fuel that can help us break our addiction to oil. But the ticket prices for this conference range from $1000 to $2500. That likely explains why the attendees are almost exclusively a mixture of fossil fuel-friendly corporations (Chevron, GE, etc.), energy-focused federal and state agencies (EPA, DOE, WV Division of Energy, State of Wyoming, etc.), military coal boosters (U.S. Air Force) and industry-funded associations (National Coal Council, American Petroleum Institute, National Mining Association, etc.). Not a legitimate grassroots group in the bunch, as far as I can tell.
A while back I snagged this lame-brained bumper sticker, courtesy of the Coal-to-Liquids Coalition. From our perspective, a more suitable slogan would be: Liquid Coal is Fool's Gold!
Make no mistake: liquid coal is rife with environmental and economic downsides. Despite the Obama administration's clarion call for clean energy solutions, the industry and its backers remain hell-bent on selling this dirty fuel as a solution to America's energy problems. In reality, liquid coal offers only enormous expense, minimal energy security benefits and an increase in greenhouse gas pollution.
Consider, for example, that the Energy Department estimates the cost of a liquid coal plant at $7 billion, excluding additional costs from carbon regulations that President Obama has promised to enact. And since converting coal into liquid generates twice the global warming emissions of regular gasoline, putting a price on carbon pollution could significantly ratchet up the already high costs. Of course, nobody at the World Coal-to-Liquids conference will be paying those costs. Instead they would be passed along to ratepayers and taxpayers, who would also foot the bill for the massive government subsides it will take to even get the industry off the ground.
In addition to the serious implications for the climate and our pocketbooks, liquid coal also would cause a range of other environmental problems. For instance, production of liquid coal requires huge amounts of water -- already a big concern around the country, particularly in Western states.
On the security side, experts like former CIA director James Woolsey and other defense experts agree that liquid coal would be a crude substitute for oil. According to a recent report co-produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, unconventional dirty fuels like liquid coal simply are not suitable energy solutions. To wit:
"High-carbon unconventional forms of energy are not viable replacements. The Western Hemisphere, for instance, is rich in unconventional fuels such as oil sands, oil shale, and extra-heavy oil deposits, as well as coal, which can be used to make liquid fuels. From an energy security point of view, the presence of these unconventional reserves adds some comfort for the U.S. But these supplies will be costly to develop, and present sizeable environmental challenges, including significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions relative to conventional fossil fuels..."
"On the technology and fuels sides, there are clear pitfalls to avoid. In particular, the world must steer clear of pathways that move to unconventional liquid fuels (e.g., oil sands, coal-to-liquids, and corn-based ethanol), which while often touted as replacements for oil, do not offer the promise of long-term security and low emissions. Furthermore, while the new administration must recognize the need for near-term affordable and reliable transportation services, it should not let quick fixes for the current system (like increasing oil supply) delay investment in a more secure, low-carbon transportation system."
Bottom line: Instead of inventing new ways to use dirty coal, we should be boosting renewable energy production, increasing efficiency and making our vehicles go further on a gallon of gas. Unlike liquid coal, these clean energy solutions can help end our dependence on fossil fuels and help the economy. Right now the development and production of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs have the potential to be the work horses of job growth and economic recovery, with absolutely none of the negative side affects of liquid coal.