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.