Sunday, September 2, 2007

Clean energy? Coal-to-liquids promise an expensive, polluting scam

Clean energy? Coal-to-liquids promise an expensive, polluting scam

In mid-August, the National Coal-to-Liquids Conference in Raleigh County featured a collection of industrialists, politicians and PR practitioners touting the benefits of new plants using an old process to turn coal into liquid fuels.

The cost of petroleum keeps going up, they pointed out, and much of it comes from volatile, unfriendly regions. They want to replace it with liquid made out of coal, an abundant domestic resource. It will be cheaper than gas, they say, provided initial costs are subsidized by taxpayers. Liquid coal burns cleaner than diesel, they claim. They say the carbon dioxide from coal to liquid refineries can be sequestered, and that building and running these plants will create thousands of jobs.

All these claims are true, but they leave a lot out. To begin with, coal may be abundant, but the most easily accessible seams have already been mined, so the expense keeps going up. Doubling national coal extraction, as proposed by coal-to-liquids pushers, would replace only 10 percent of the oil we use. Here in West Virginia, it would mean even more of our beautiful, rich mountains being ravaged, ruined and then “reclaimed” ... used once and thrown away like a tissue.

Secondly, the prices quoted leave out the cost of carbon taxes and carbon sequestration. Why are the backers so feverishly trying to get public support for these projects? Private investors are leery of sinking money into expensive ventures with costs likely to skyrocket once policy finally catches up to the realities of climate change. Some kind of cap-and-trade program or carbon tax now seems inevitable. So those who stand to gain from the plants want to rush these things into production before the regulatory landscape changes, and they want us to foot the bill.

We don’t even know whether sequestration will work. It has never been tried on a large scale. Talk about sequestration works as a kind of bait-and-switch scam: when people talk about the consequences of massive climate change and the need to drastically reduce greenhouse gases, coal interests tout carbon sequestration as a solution. But when it comes to actual proposals, they don’t want to build actual plants that capture and then sequester actual carbon dioxide, because that’s too expensive.
Then there’s the claim that the fuel burns cleaner than diesel.

It does (although less clean than gasoline). But producing the fuel is a dirty process — and where do you suppose they’ll build these pollution factories? Near the coal, of course, meaning West Virginians will have yet more burdens on our lungs, in a region that has some of the dirtiest air in the country thanks to a dense concentration of old, filthy power plants. (Check out www.cleartheair/dirtypower.)
It’s also perfectly true that building and running and fueling coal-to-liquids plants would create thousands of jobs, but so would building windmills or concentrated solar thermal power plants or solar panels, and we could do any of those things without destroying our mountains, our air, our water and our future

Let’s stop selling this state so cheap! The West Virginia work force has an excellent reputation. Why shouldn’t our federal representatives demand provisions in the energy bills to give laid-off miners and power plant workers first dibs on the new jobs in conservation, efficiency and renewable energy? They should, but they won’t, because our political process guarantees that politicians cater to the needs of their contributors, not their constituents.
Thus we have huge subsidies going into inefficient production of ethanol from corn, because Archer Daniels Midland gives big bucks to politicians. What the rest of us get out of it is higher food prices. If we don’t stand up now, we’ll have a similar scam operating in our own backyard, with tax money wasted on an inefficient way to make fuel from coal, and what we’ll get out of it is more pollution and more destroyed land.
Now is the time to put the pressure on your representatives to vote for real solutions, such as raised gas mileage standards for vehicles, creation of a modern, efficient train system and direction of subsidies for renewable energy into improving the efficiency and lowering the cost of genuine renewables — solar energy, wind and perhaps tidal power and geothermal energy — not into boondoggles to benefit special interest groups.
Wildfire, of Spencer, is a member of and volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Council.