Climate

Some Thoughts on Coal to Diesel

Montana governor Brian Schweitzer announced a major coal-to-liquids plant last week. The process is a very old (and expensive) one used by the Germans in World War II and subsequently by the South Africans.

Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel. The more you burn, the worse for the climate — and making diesel out of coal generates almost twice as much total greenhouse gases as simply making diesel out of crude oil — unless you can find some way of capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it forever. The media coverage states:

Schweitzer said the plant will be equipped to capture carbon dioxide for storage underground. The coal’s mercury, sulfur and particulate matter will be removed, he said. Fix said the handling of carbon dioxide is of particular concern because of the potential for releases to heighten global climate change.

Let’s hope this is not political language that needs to be parsed — “will be equipped to” is not the same thing as simply “will.”

I am not a big fan of this idea. I co-authored an op-ed a few months ago for the Billing’s Gazette spelling out my arguments with Ron Erickson, a retired professor of chemistry and environmental studies at the University of Montana and a former representative in the Montana Legislature. Here it is:

Guest Opinion: Making oil from coal is bad for Montana

By Joseph Romm and Ron Erickson

Gov. Brian Schweitzer is touting coal-to-liquid plants as the solution to our current energy problems. While we are as appalled as everyone at rising gas prices and our growing dependence on foreign oil, we believe that no solution to our oil problem should come at the expense of destroying Montana’s air, land and water, as well as accelerating global warming. There are quicker, cheaper and faster solutions.

Global warming is no longer a problem we can ignore here in Montana, the nation and the world. The planet has warmed nearly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid-1800s and human emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide are the primary cause according to scientists from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and around the world. Right here in Montana, the glaciers in Glacier National Park are shrinking and warmer winters are allowing for infestations of pine beetles to spread through our forests.

What does the future hold if we don’t start reducing emissions sharply? Montana summers could be 10 degrees hotter by 2100, and Eastern Montana would have 95-degree weather for nearly two months out of the year. Snowpacks will drop sharply and melt many weeks earlier, at the same time that summers will be hotter and drier. A 2004 study led by researchers at the U.S. Forest Services Pacific Wildland Fire Lab concluded that, “the area burned by wildfires in 11 Western states could double” by mid-century. In Montana, we could see burn areas increase fivefold by 2100.

Reduce CO2 emissions

To avoid this grim fate, the nation must reduce carbon dioxide emissions 50 percent or more by mid-century. There are many solutions to cutting carbon emissions, but the coal-to-diesel plan is not one of them. This idea has three major flaws.

First, the process is incredibly expensive. You need to spend over $6 billion just to build one plant, which would produce 80,000 barrels a day – hardly a cost-effective solution when the U.S. consumes more than 21 million barrels a day.

Second, coal-to-diesel requires lots of water, about five gallons of water for every gallon of diesel fuel – not a particularly good long-term strategy in an area that is dealing with drought and water shortages, which will only increase with global warming.

Third, the total carbon dioxide emissions from coal-to-diesel are about double that of conventional diesel. Half the emissions are from the plant, and while you can in theory capture and store that carbon underground, it is expensive. Also, permanent leak-free solutions are not yet proven. And even if the carbon is captured at the plant, you are still left with diesel fuel that is burned in a vehicle and emitted out the tailpipe. We need to reduce our carbon emissions, and coal-to-diesel will increase them. It is not a good use for billions and billions of dollars.

Solutions at hand

Montana deserves better, and better solutions can be found right here. First, we should work to improve our existing coal-fired power plants by developing and implementing carbon capture and storage. Once this proves feasible, we can think about building more coal fired power plants. Until this is developed, Montana should be looking toward its wind resources for electrical generation.

Regarding our dependency on fossil fuels, tougher government standards need to be put in place, which would double cars’ fuel economy.

We should aggressively pursue domestic pollution-free renewable biofuels, such as biodiesel and ethanol from switchgrass, which can be grown here in Montana. This new industry would provide an economic boom for Eastern Montana, without turning it into a sacrifice zone.

Finally, the government needs to adopt a renewable fuel standard requiring 25 percent of all fuels in 2025 to come from renewable sources.

We must reduce our dependence on foreign oil and we must reduce our carbon emissions. But let’s do it in a way that preserves the health and well-being of all Montanans and Americans.

19 Responses to Some Thoughts on Coal to Diesel

  1. […] Converting coal to a liquid fuel like diesel is a bad idea for the climate, as previously noted. The good news is that the new Congress will be far more skeptical of the idea than the old one. […]

  2. interesting concept for sure, but I think the biodiesel from veggie oil is a better idea

  3. JR says:

    I can’t help but cringe every time I see someone calling CO2 a “greenhouse gas.” The claims that Montana’s temperature might be higher in 2100 may be true, but the source certainly isn’t carbon dioxide. The planet, Mercury, is heating up at the same rate as Earth. The sun is the sources of the excess engergy.

    CO2 only blocks a very small spectum of the IR frequencies, and not the range of IR frequencies given off by the the surface temperature of our planet. The planet would have to be very hot before CO2 could be a factor. And let’s not forget, CO2 is the very life source of plants. More CO2 in the air means more plant life on earth, which means more O2 in the air, which means healthier animal life.

    The known coal deposits have a greater carbon content that all the plant life on Earth combined. All that coal was once live plant matter. In other words, all the carbon in all that coal was once in circulation in the agronomical carbon cycle. Returning all that carbon (coal) to the atmosphere would simply be returning the earth to the lush vegetation state of the pre-historic era.

  4. OBEWAN says:

    Carbon sequestration has been proven by Kinder-Morgan in Texas where over 1 billion cu ft of co2 is recaptured and pumped underground daily. We keep forgetting we only have a 30+ year oil supply left, and will need to exercise every option to ensure our continued survival. As for the water, that can be placed into holding ponds and recycled.

  5. terry says:

    global warming is a good thing for life on this planet. a bad thing thing only for those with ocean front condo property. let the pine beetles finish off those forests to be replaced with lush deciduous forest courtesy of a warmer, less harsh environment. get rid of all that pesky ice and open up huge tracks of northern/southern land to agriculture, etc. the political problem seems to be a symptom of change-o-phobia suffered by the “green people”. as soon as on feels the green urge they should see a shrink and get themselves fixed up please before you cause anymore misdirected human effort better directed to any other cause.

  6. humdinger says:

    after thinking about this situation, appears to me that the coal to diesel solution would be an excellent choice for a short time frame.
    this technology would burst the bubble on the high oil prices by assuming that an excess would be on the market.
    with the large coal reserves that the US has, we could put a larger number of workers to work mining this resource and delivering an american product to american people.
    this approach would in turn balance the budget and restore america’s fiscal might.
    of couse there might be a little melting of some snow and the bettles finding a few more trees to munch on, but let’s think outside of the bun on this one.
    perhaps we might also do a little drilling off both coasts and into the artic wildlife area.
    let’s not fall into the hand wring and worry about the next century, rather let’s live and enjoy each and every day and i’m sure that that crows will have new problems to consume them as well.
    thank-you for your time

  7. Charles Smith says:

    The ratio of 5 gallons of water per gallon of diesel fuel seems high, but isn’t the ratio higher for bio-diesel, or ethanol?

    Global warming is not caused by man, but is a simple repeating cycle. If it wasn’t for global warming, we would be under a mile of ice in the Central US, and Montanna would be uninhabitable.

  8. E.M.Smith says:

    CO2 capture and sequestration is strongly desired by the oil industry. They need the CO2 to strip the older oil fields all over the nation. Any synfuels factory at all near an oil field will have a built in customer who will want to BUY the CO2. It will be done.

    BTW, the present non-start of solar cycle 24 is looking like the proof that “The Sun Did It”. We will know in about 5 years one way or the other and we can start talking about the “AlGore Cool Period” ;-) IFF AGW is shown to be real, then we can cut the CTL factories over to switchgrass, trash, whatever…

  9. E.M.Smith says:

    A back of the spreadsheet calculation:

    Using the numbers above, a total replacement of the U.S. oil supply via CTL would take $1 1/2 Trillion. I know, we don’t need to replace it all, but it’s a nice number to use for comparisons. Replacing 300 million cars with new ones at $20,000 each would cost $6 Trillion. Hmmm… And that ignores the fact that lots of those cars will cost much more than $20g’s and completely ignores all the airplanes, trains, busses, trucks, ships, ‘copters, et.al. Call it $12 Trillion for a full sweep.

    So CTL runs out at about 1/8 th the cost of fleet replacement… Hmm… so much for all those $Billions… And Montana could use the CTL plants to turn switchgrass into Diesel and still be green…

  10. Earl Killian says:

    E.M. Smith, you ignore the fact that the existing fleet of 238 million cars and light trucks need to be replaced over the next 15 years anyway. You are posting nonsense. Your CTL would destroy our atmosphere and cause trillions of dollars of damage.

  11. Kim Williams says:

    JR has a point. CO2 is essential to plant life. I knew that in grade school, and the content of CO2 in the atmosphere is well under 1%. I would assume that someone, somewhere has attempted to enhance plant growth by introducing extra CO2 in a controlled environment. Would it work? Would this be a good way to use some of that EVIL stuff? Could any of the whiners who can’t seem to think past the end of their noses, maybe find a way to take advantage of the situation rather than just accept the “worst case scenario”, “doom and gloom” conclusion.

  12. Earl Killian says:

    JR, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. 19th century physics showed that. I guess you are stuck in the 18th century? As for other planets warming, please see
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php
    #20 and #1

    Kim, the natural level of CO2 over the last million years has been 180-280 ppm. That is the range that modern plants are adapted to. The level is now 385 ppm and rising at 2 ppm per year. Excess heat caused by CO2 is bad for many plants; for example higher nighttime temperatures decrease rice yields.

  13. Kim Williams says:

    Earl, just looked up CO2 on wikipedia and found that many greenhouse operators do indeed introduce extra CO2 into that indoor environment and find growth enhanced by as much as 50%. They find that indoors, the levels fall below 200 ppm so they bring it up to about 1000 ppm. Also, though I realize that there are many other factors involved, I know that crop yields are significantly higher than they were 40 years ago in the area where I live.

  14. Earl Killian says:

    Kim, yes that works in a greenhouse because plants are given an abundance of everything else they need, such as water, sunlight, nutrients, and the temperature is controlled.

    The effect I mentioned above is a longer term effect: CO2 causes temperature to rise, and the plants need to spend more energy reducing their moisture loss, and thus less energy growing.

    Also, field experiments with increased CO2 have not had the same effects as in greenhouses because if you have more CO2, you also need more water and more nutrients in the soil to increase growth.

    There is actually one variant of what you propose in active development for using CO2 from the exhaust of fossil plants to grow algae:
    http://www.greenfuelonline.com/
    Unfortunately this is not a sustainable model.

  15. Your post will definitely help those who cannot decide which one to buy. This will help them to know how a diesel engine & gasoline engines will work.

  16. The thoughts provided by you is great very impressive article.

  17. boya says:

    You are posting nonsense. Your CTL would destroy our atmosphere and cause trillions of dollars of damage.

  18. I was wondering if you could set up some sort of system so when your publish a new article, i get emailed to alert me?

    [JR: Done! Try http://twitter.com/climateprogress]

  19. global warming is a good thing for life on this planet. a bad thing thing only for those with ocean front condo property. let the pine beetles finish off those forests to be replaced with lush deciduous forest courtesy of a warmer, less harsh environment. get rid of all that pesky ice and open up huge tracks of northern/southern land to agriculture, etc. the political problem seems to be a symptom of change-o-phobia suffered by the “green people”. as soon as on feels the green urge they should see a shrink and get themselves fixed up please before you cause anymore misdirected human effort better directed to any other cause.