COAL-TO-LIQUID fuel is being touted in the Senate energy debate as a key to overcoming America's dependence on foreign fuel. The argument is understandable, considering that the United States sits atop the largest coal reserves in the world, by one estimate a 200- to 450-year supply. But unanswered questions and environmental concerns raise the prospect that the price for this brand of energy independence may be too high.
To turn coal into liquid fuel it must be fired up to 1,000 degrees and mixed with water. Then the gas that's created is transformed into fuel that can be used in cars and jets. Unfortunately, creating CTL, as it is known, is a very intensive process requiring coal, water and cash. To wean the United States off of just 1 million barrels of the 21 million barrels of crude oil consumed daily, an estimated 120 million tons of coal would need to be mined each year. The process requires vast amounts of water, particularly a concern in the parched West. And the price of a plant is estimated at $4 billion.
The most troubling aspect of CTL is that producing it will roughly double climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. That's because liquefying coal releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Proponents of CTL say that could be remedied by capturing and storing the carbon underground. Yet this new technology is so untested on a large scale that the Senate energy bill seeks to conduct demonstration projects across the country to answer some vital questions, such as whether the carbon dioxide, once stored in a variety of geological settings, will remain there. And once past production questions, there's another obstacle: Tailpipe emissions from cars using CTL would be only slightly better (or no better at all, depending on whom you ask) than from gasoline.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has proposed an amendment to the Senate bill that would provide loans and other incentives to companies to build plants that would turn coal into liquid fuel while capturing and sequestering the greenhouse gases they emit. It makes sense to find out whether trapping carbon dioxide underground is feasible. But large-scale and premature subsidies for this untested and environmentally risky technology may amount to nothing more than a big giveaway to Big Coal.