Obama Walks Away From Liquid Coal

The one blemish on Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) environmental stance had been his support for coal-to-liquid (CTL). Now he has clarified his position:

Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20% less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels.

Yet, even if you capture all the carbon dioxide from the process, pure coal-to-liquids have 4% higher lifecycle carbon emissions than conventional fuels, as previously noted. The only way to get a 20% reduction in emissions is by blending in a lot of biomass (see page 25 here).

Yet in practice, that blending would add tremendous cost and complexity to a system that already costs a stunning $4.5 billion dollars just for a 50,000-barrel-a-day facility without CO2 storage and without biomass blending. And we would need more than 200 such facilities to replace all imported oil today. Not gonna happen.

Further, Obama’s clarification contains another commitment that is all-but-fatal to CTL:

Today’s incorrect story in CongressDaily “Senate Debate Is Likely To Test Party, Regional Priorities,” misstates Senator Obama’s position on the development of coal-to-liquid fuels. Senator Obama recognizes that global warming is one of the most significant problems that we face. He supports an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from all sources by 2050 and a 10% reduction in the carbon emissions of transportation fuels by 2020. Senator Obama supports research into all technologies to help solve our climate change and energy dependence problems, including shifting our energy use to renewable fuels and investing in technology that could make coal a clean burning source of energy. However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20% less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels. If an amendment is offered on the Senate floor that would provide incentives for – or mandate the use of – coal-to-liquid fuels without these environmental safeguards, Senator Obama will oppose the amendment.

If by 2050 we must have an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from all sources, including transportation, then how can we make any significant use of a fuel that has only a 20% reduction in life-cycle emissions? Moreover, by 2050, the country may have 50% more people and cars, and certain aspects of transportation, such as air travel, may prove very difficult to achieve deep reductions in.

The answer is CTL has no place in greenhouse-gas constrained world. Why waste precious underground storage space for carbon dioxide from CTL (which leaves you with a carbon-intenstive fuel) when you could use that space for carbon dioxide from coal gasification (which leaves you with carbon-free electricity)? Why waste precious biomass blending with coal to make CTL when you could just make cellulosic ethanol directly from the biomass (or you could blend the biomass with coal to make electricity with negative carbon emissions).

CTL is an irredeemably bad idea. Good to see Senator — and presidential candidate — Obama walking away from it.

One Response to Obama Walks Away From Liquid Coal

  1. Over the next thirty years, the most rapid increase in energy demand is expected to come from the transport sector (+2.1%/yr versus 1.7%/yr for total demand). At present, this sector relies almost exclusively on petroleum products, which brings up two key problems: oil dependence and the reduction of greenhouse gases.
    In India and Chima, the cost of extracting coal is low (about $12/t), therefore the CTL solution may prove competitive compared to conventional solutions provided that the price per barrel oil stays higher than $40/bbl for a very long period.
    CO2 emissions are higher with CTL than for conventional technologies. To improve their greenhouse gas emission balance, consideration may eventually be given to capturing the CO2 emitted by these units and storing it in geological formations, which would cost an additional $10 to 20/bbl.
    Thus it may be too early to commit large scale funds to the CTL program.