Pan Appalachian Defender

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Coal-to-liquid doesn’t make sense

by Vivian Stockman

In this scary, uncertain time of war and rising energy costs, it’s comforting to cling to what we think we know. For many politicians, that is coal.
That’s one explanation for why some legislators are touting the development of coal-to-liquid fuel refineries as necessary for America’s energy “security.”
Gov. Manchin chairs West Virginia’s Public Energy Authority and the Southern States Energy Board. Both groups are very interested in processing coal into liquid fuels.
News reports say governors and legislators make up the Southern States Energy Board, neglecting to mention the group’s “Associate Members.” They include the National Mining Association, National Coal Council, Peabody Energy, American Electric Power and other coal-burning utilities.
No wonder the board is promoting legislation giving big subsidies, tax breaks, government-insurance programs and loans to fund construction of these hugely expensive, highly polluting plants.
At the August meeting of West Virginia’s Public Energy Authority, members and others reviewed “A Perspective on Coal to Liquid,” presented by Rita Bajura on behalf of her husband, Dr. Richard Bajura, director of WVU’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy.
Bajura’s PowerPoint handout summarized various reports and news, including some of the Southern board’s findings from a “study” it released to the press in July. The Southern States Energy Board supposedly examined the real cost of imported oil. When it was time for questions, I asked if the Southern States Energy Board also looked at the real costs of coal.
I didn’t expect the Public Energy Authority members to ask such a question, but I did ask a question the authority should have. Because there’s debate about whether the energy used in making corn into ethanol is worth the energy gained in the final product, I wondered about the energy equation in the coal to liquid process. Bajura said that was a question her husband could answer, but that the process does indeed use a lot of energy. After the meeting, Paul Hardesty, the authority’s executive director, told me he would find out the answer.
While this information — crucial in determining if coal-to-liquid makes sense — was missing from the presentation, other startling information screamed, “No! Coal-to-liquid does not make sense!” despite the limits of oil supplies worldwide: Emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major culprit in human-induced global warming, which even the Pentagon has labeled a greater security threat than terrorism) will be nearly twice as high as using petroleum fuels!
An earlier slide in the presentation read “Any major WV energy initiative needs to be conscious of its impact on future carbon emissions,” and Bajura clarified, “Or I don’t believe the public will ever permit it to occur.” How could the authority members just sit there? Why didn’t they say, “Given the overwhelming urgency of our need to curb global warming, this technology is absolutely unacceptable”?
If 90 percent of the CO2 created by converting coal into liquids were sequestered underground, then the emissions would be nearly comparable to petroleum.
In July, a Reuter’s article, “Concerns Rise About C02 Burial,” noted that hundreds have died from leaks of naturally occurring underground CO2. In August, Oxford Analytica stated that carbon sequestration is currently commercially unviable and extremely costly. It warns that investing in this technology is risky and could crowd out opportunities for cleaner and sustainable energy sources.
To produce one barrel of coal-to-liquid, a refinery uses 2.5 barrels of water!
Even China, which had embraced coal-to-liquid, announced just days before the August Public Energy Authority meeting that it needs to curb coal-to-liquid, because of concerns over pollution and the volumes of water consumed.
Water, besides being an increasingly scare “commodity” essential to life, has huge value. A 1977 study valued the services nature gives us (such as potable water and flood-controlling forests) at $33 trillion a year. Soon, the University of Vermont will have an online tool to help policymakers determine the actual value of nature’s service and understand that conservation is a form of development. The Public Energy Authority should avail itself of this tool.
The National Coal Council envisions a doubling of national coal production, and a $515 billion investment in coal-to-liquid plants, in order to produce 2.6 million barrels of fuel a day, or 10 percent of current U.S. oil demand. (The council says the plants would also provide some electricity, natural gas, ethanol and hydrogen.)
Just one plant producing 80,000 barrels of coal-to-liquid fuel a day would cost $6.5 billion. Even before the August meeting, state Public Energy Authority members were admitting difficulty finding investors willing to help fund coal-to-liquid plants. Maybe investors realize federal regulations on C02 are inevitable and will make CO2-spewing CTL plants even more costly. And maybe investors are wary of public resistance to the whole misguided idea of coal-to-liquid fuel.
Can our communities and environment really bear a doubling of coal mining production, considering that even coal lobbyists say most of the easily mined coal is gone? Coal extraction results in enormous social and environmental costs, which are borne by society now and into the future, but not by the coal operators. Ask the sick citizens of Rawl, Lick Creek and Merrimac in Mingo County, whose wells are apparently contaminated by coal-processing wastes, about the costs of coal extraction that they bear.
The Public Energy Authority needs to ask itself if hundreds of billions of dollars that could go into coal-to-fuel plants might be better used advancing truly clean renewable energy. In Colorado, utility ratepayers asked the Public Service Commission to replace subsidies for coal with incentives for concentrating solar power plants, which are cost competitive with fossil fuel plants. Concentrating solar power plants, unlike solar panels, produces steam, (like coal-fired plants) with mirrors that gather sunlight.
West Virginia’s Public Energy Authority should study whether current sun-baked mountaintop removal wastelands, devoid of trees, could be sites for concentrated solar power. If such solar plants are feasible here, that’s no excuse for one more inch of mountaintop removal, not until the hundreds of thousands of acres of existing mined sites are covered in concentrated solar power plants. And by then, surely, we will recognize the value, the need for saving our remaining forests and streams.
Will the Public Energy Authority consider the public? That’s what was left out of Bajura’s presentation, and is pretty obviously left out of the minds of most Public Energy Authority members. Yet, the public ought to be the focus of measures we take for energy security, and a clean, livable environment is the foundation of security.
It’s obvious we, the public, will have to work at being heard. Department of Environmental Protection chief Stephanie Timmermeyer, who chairs the Public Energy Authority meetings in the governor’s usual absence, closed the August meeting without calling for the final item on the agenda — public comment.
Vivian Stockman is a project coordinator for the Huntington-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a coordinator of the Sludge Safety Project and a board member of


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