New Years Resolution #47: Get the real facts out on liquid coal

#1. Pilates
#2. More blogging, less TV
#3. Less blogging, more time with daughter
[The more resolutions, the more chances I’ll keep a few.]

Re #47. In case Climate Progress didn’t have enough to blog on in 2008, now comes this story from Energy Washington (subs. req’d, whole article below):

Coal Liquids Advocates Need Funding, Friends And Facts In 2008
The policy debate on the future of coal use in the United States will begin to heat up almost immediately in 2008, possibly as early as the State of the Union address and in response to an imminent EPA report that will likely find coal-to-liquids (CTL) a cleaner technology than first thought, say CTL industry sources. They will be pushing, alongside industrial energy consumers, for a way to carve out a place for coal at the climate bill table, say sources on the front lines of deliberations between industry, Congress and the administration on coal.

Everybody needs facts but CTL more than most, given its overwhelming negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions, water….

Bring on the facts (or, more likely, “facts”) Bush EPA and other CTL friends. Preemptively, I’m going to start this resolution early with a long list of related posts at the end.

The rest of the article is here:

State of the Union and FutureGen
These sources say that President Bush is mulling a place for coal-liquids in his 2008 State of the Union speech, which could help bring coal back into the forefront of the energy security/climate debate — using a new administration coal initiative as a foil for new technology funding. Renewed presidential interest would be greatly welcomed by the industry, because CTL industry participants in energy bill deliberations say federal agency sources working on coal programs are telling them that some of the national labs are faced with a funding crunch for coal research. At about the same time the president signed the energy bill into law, DOE said funding for FutureGen — its flagship advanced coal power plant program — had been pared back, just as site designations were made.

As the coal debate progresses into the New Year, these sources, who have been vying for FutureGen funding to be sent their way, say the CTL industry may volunteer as the new near-term alternative to maintaining the FutureGen program. The FutureGen program explores a lot of out-ahead technologies, including the use of fuel cells, that one industry source says CTL plants could adapt in moving ahead with multi-faceted plant configurations to produce a host of liquid products, synthetic gas and even combined-cycle power generation. The technology is already there with CTL, these sources argue, including the separation of CO2 gas for storage underground. And federal backing/funding for advanced coal projects on CTL sites would help the investment community hedge the risk in investing in these facilities, they add.

A New EPA Report
Alongside industry’s vying for new sources of funding and the possibility of a new administration push for coal, CTL industry sources are also greatly anticipating a new agency report that is expected to be good in terms of emission numbers for CTL plants using available technology to make the process cleaner. The report, to be released by EPA, is expected to outshine the Idaho National Lab report released in early 2007 that demonstrated the potential of CTL to become cleaner by deploying carbon capture sequestration, and co-firing techniques using a 30 percent blend of biomass. The national lab report showed that the process could cut emissions by near 50 percent or higher compared to more conventional CTL plants. A source close to the company on which the national lab report was based, Baard Energy, said that EPA’s clean coal numbers will surpass the Idaho data. The source was privy to the EPA data, and although he could not discuss specifics, said the report is anticipated to be a plus in arguments to go forward on CTL.

The source indicated that the report has been delayed — it had been slated for late 2007 — but will be one of the most anticipated reports early in 2008, as the coal industry hunkers down for what the source called a heated climate debate fight. The source — who has been privy to high-level talks on the Hill — hinted at reasons for the report’s delays, saying recent haranguing over corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) at EPA may be the cause.

The report will help the CTL industry make a new case for the technology, which they say has always been about making coal a cleaner more viable feedstock. But the environmental opposition is also digging in its heels, with what the coal industry is calling nothing less than a religious fervor against coal use. Activists may not support coal even if it is made clean enough, a high-level coal industry source said, based on an inclination to oppose coal use however clean the process. But at the same time the country is faced with $100 per barrel oil prices, and industrial energy consumers want coal gasification to be used as a hedge against dependence on foreign imports of natural gas and oil.

Investors and Industry Alliances
These sources say the market is moving toward CTL even without activist support, in that investors are saying that no one energy source is favorable over another, and that an energy mix is needed. Banks and investors are looking at all energy technologies, say CTL industry sources, while adding that the environmentalist community needs to pay closer attention to the energy security needs and the long-term industrial ramifications of backing away from coal use in this country. The EPA report may be a first step in that direction, using its lower emission data to show that it would be foolish to kill off coal use altogether.

In light of market support for a plethora of technologies, these sources anticipate new alliances with industrial energy consumers and even the nuclear industry. High-level industry sources say that the needs and arguments for the nuclear industry in terms of loan guarantees are similar for that of CTL. The industrial consumer community wants coal gasification to offset natural gas imports and to bolster energy security, to keep U.S. manufacturing competitive.

The new alliances will enable the coal-liquids industry to make a case for the next generation of conventional fuel types; on the argument that renewable electricity alone is not the answer. Renewable development needs to be done alongside efforts to develop clean-coal power and liquid fuels, while pushing ahead on efficiency and demand-side conservation, say these sources.

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12 Responses to New Years Resolution #47: Get the real facts out on liquid coal

  1. Paul K says:

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, President Bush is busy solving the problem by building
    the world’s first integrated sequestration and hydrogen production research power plant.

  2. Earl Killian says:

    Powering most of our transportation with electricity from sunlight makes CTL unnecessary. We could get rid of coal for electricity with long-known efficiency improvements and some wind and solar. We could power 80% of our vehicle miles with electricity from additional wind and solar. The remaining 20% of vehicle miles could come at first from petroleum, and later from biodiesel. The land for this 80/20 solution is just 2,900 square miles for the electricity, and 30,000 square miles for the biodiesel (the 20% takes so much more than the 80% because electricity is that much more efficient as the intermediary between sunlight and vehicle motion). We would have renewable transportation and nearly renewable electricity (the remainder being mostly natural gas, which is the cleanest of the fossil fuels).

    The plug-in technology is ready, the sunlight to electricity technology is ready, electric efficiency technology is ready, and the algae biodiesel technology is in development. We don’t lack in sunlight to fuel our needs. All we lack is the leadership to make it happen.

  3. There were enough things wrong with this post, and with your overall treatment of synthetic fuels, that I felt I needed to tell the other half of the story that you continue to willfully omit.

    My response to your story is posted on my blog at:

    The bottom-line: We CAN reduce and/or eliminate the carbon footprint from coal-derived synthetic fuels, and your continued willful omission of this fact is doing supreme disservice to your supposed mission of addressing in a real way the challenges posed to us by climate change.

  4. Joe says:

    Sorry, SJ, the fact that we can theoretically eliminate the carbon footprint from CTL with biomass and CCS [carbon capture and storage], doesn’t mean 1) that it will become the standard CTL strategy or 2) that it is actually a good use of either the biomass or the CCS.

    In fact, given that there is not one single commercial CTL plant with biomass and CCS — and given that such a plant would be far more complicated, expensive, and risky than plain old CTL — you’ll just have to excuse my disbelief that such plants will become the cornerstone of this new industry.

    In any case, if it becomes practical and economic to gasify a significant amount of biomass with coal and then capture and store the carbon, it is very safe to say analytically that a MUCH better use of the biomass (and the convenient permanent global geologic repositories for CO2) is to make negative-carbon electricity rather than zero-carbon liquid fuel.

    CTL is not part of a strategy to achieve 450 ppm. It is part of a strategy to stay addicted to liquid fossil fuels.

  5. This technology is not theoretical. Gasification combined with CCS is already in commercial use at the Great Plains Synfuels plant near Beulah ND. Since 2000, the CO2 from the plant has been transported via a 200-mile pipeline to the Weyburn Oil Field in southwestern Saskatchewan, Canada, as part of the DOE-funded Weyburn Project. The Weyburn Project has successfully sequestered about five million tons of CO2 into the Weyburn oil field since the start of the project. Granted, this plant is not capturing 100% of its carbon, as that was not part of the original design, but the fact remains that gasification with carbon capture is in full commercial operation in the US.

    Biomass gasification is also not theoretical. It is being done in Europe as we speak, at commercial scale. Every day equipment suppliers are working on new gasification technologies to more easily and efficiently utilize and process biomass into a feedstock for industrial gasification.

    Saying that it cant/wont be done because of the fact that biomass gasification and CCS is not running today in the same plant is a technically invalid argument. Each component is running today in separate facilities, and the technologies are fully compatible. There is no reason whatsoever that these processes cannot be economically and efficiently combined in the same plant.

    Your assertion that these plants are too expensive, risky, and complicated does not hold water. These technologies do add an element of complexity and cost to the project, but it is not nearly so severe of a factor that it compromises project viability.
    We are talking about maybe a 10-15% increase in capital costs, and a bit of an increase in operating costs. Certainly not enough to compromise the economic viability of the project given the current oil prices. Given the major permitting uncertainties that are beginning to be introduced by the early stages of carbon regulation, I would argue that it is actually a substantial project risk NOT to be considering deployment of these technologies, as it substantially increases the probability of years of litigation of permit applications, or even outright denial of the project permits. Compared to those risks, IMO the risks of biomass and CCS pale in comparison.

    And to address the “even if we could, we shouldn’t” aspect of your argument, I could not disagree more wholly or vigorously.

    The pathway you argue for, clean renewable electricity production (whether biomass gasification, wind, solar or other) ultimately being used for transportation, is an admirable vision, and one which I see unfolding progressively as we slowly get viable electrical vehicle technology that is commercially available. This path should be pursued and encouraged. If you are right, and it is that much more efficient, then ultimately we will have no demand for our liquid fuels after all of the vehicles transition over to cheaper electrical power. When that day arrives, we can retire the fuels portion of these plants, and produce power from the same process equipment by just directing the biomass derived syngas or hydrogen over to a turbine or a fuel cell. I welcome that day, as efficiency and delivery of clean energy is truly my goal.

    BUT, I do not think any rational person can really believe that the far-down-the-road potential to transition our economy to clean electricity is an acceptable reason to choose not to produce clean transportation fuels NOW, in an economically viable and climate-friendly manner. You are kidding yourself if you think we are going to quickly and suddenly stop using liquid transportation fuels.

    So what you are really arguing is that because the solution is only good, not theoretically perfect, we ought not to do it, and instead of producing and using in existing infrastructure hundreds of millions of gallons of clean carbon neutral transportation fuels, thereby economically and realistically producing a dramatic reduction to global carbon emissions, we ought to pack it up, go build some wind turbines, and hope that eventually they might make vehicles that can run on that power.

    That is a bad argument. Even from a climate standpoint. But there are even more issues to consider here.

    I wish we had the luxury of only looking at the situation through the climate lens. Unfortunately, Peak Oil is also a pressing issue. One which if left unaddressed is likely to take a much larger toll on overall human health and well being much sooner than climate change. Looking at either issue, Peak Oil or Climate Change, to the exclusion of the other is to invite conclusions on the shape of future energy infrastructure that will lead to disastrous consequences if those conclusions are followed to their logical end without considering the relational impacts on the other issue.

    You say that this is “part of a strategy to stay addicted to liquid fossil fuels”. Done right, that could not be further from the truth. These plants can be designed to ultimately transition to 100% biomass operation using the right type of gasification and front-end processing. A true BTL process. This means that a responsibly developed gasification and FT synthetic fuels plant not only can deliver immediately a real reduction in lifecycle carbon emissions, but also it DOES NOT ULTIMATELY COMMIT US TO A FOSSIL FUELS PATH. Instead, it can help act as a true bridge solution, leveraging our endowment of low-cost fossil fuels sources to help build the infrastructure that will ultimately run on renewables.

    Like it or not, done right CTL-based synthetic fuels, or more accurately BCTL+CCS (Biomass and Coal to Liquids plus Carbon Capture and Sequestration), can be not only be a part, but even a cornerstone, of a strategy to achieve 450PPM carbon stabilization.

    I would make the argument that it can even be delivered on a larger scale and more quickly than through conversion of electrical infrastructure, as these plants are viable on a 100% carbon neutral basis now, at today’s oil prices, and carry much larger margins than electricity production. Do not make the mistake of confusing electrical energy as a product with liquid fuels as a product. Or the relative economics of the conversion of a given feedstock to each of these products. If you take the BTU content of one ton of coal, or an equivalent BTU content of biomass, and convert it to electricity, you get $75 worth of product. If you convert those same BTUs in feedstock to liquid fuels you can get $200+ worth of product).

    That is why economics of reduced carbon fuels may work when the economics of gasification+CCS electricity generation are far more challenged.

    The one and only argument you have made here that actually holds up is that the ability to do this does not guarantee its implementation or acceptance.

    This is also the point that I most want to you and your colleagues in the environmental community to stop, and think very very carefully about, as here is also where you have the opportunity to either choose to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.

    Right now you are actively undermining your own credibility by making technically inaccurate arguments against the development of a synthetic fuels industry, hoping instead for eventual development of some theoretically more efficient future approach.

    You are letting the perfect get in the way of the good.

    Instead, you can choose to look objectively at the technology and the studies, and admit that we DO have a viable technical path here, and instead of committing so much time and energy to trying to block the entire industry as a whole, can instead do your best to encourage responsible development. That is a noble task in indeed.

    Don’t like CTL without CCS? Great. Make us do it. No problem. Think it’s important that we produce fuels with a lower lifecycle footprint than conventional petro-diesel? Great! Make that case.

    By doing that, you are being part of the solution, encouraging responsible development, and remaining true to your mission of reducing carbon emissions and trying to get to stabilization by 450 PPM.

    Your current course has you producing a very large amount of what I would call “friendly fire”. There ARE those of us in the industry that are being proactive in reducing lifecycle carbon emissions.

    If you set the standard, industry can either aim at and hit it economically, or not. Either way, you have pursued the course of intellectual honesty, and supported and enhanced your mission of a reduction in global carbon emissions.

    The alternative, which is what you are currently doing, is by intentionally spreading misinformation or disinformation by incorrectly stating that all coal-derived synthetic fuels have catastrophic climate impacts, you (and the NRDC and others) are not only just flat-out lying about enormous the potential of these fuels to be part of the climate solution. You are actually in effect making the problem of climate change worse, by slowing down and hurting those of us who are attempting to pursue and implement real and presently deployable large-scale solutions to this problem.

    Part of the solution, or part of the problem? The choice is yours.

    – Stephen

  6. obewan says:

    Liquid coal made with carbon sequestration can be as clean or cleaner than conventional oil fuels. Carbon sequestration has already been proven at Kinder Morgan in TX where over 1 billion cu ft of co2 is captured daily and pumped underground for permanent storage. We only have 50 years max left on the oil supply according to the DOE experts – less according to the worlds leading geophysicists. There will be 9 billion mouths to feed, and mass economic chaos will ensue long before that when the shortages hit. We need to exercise every available option to prolong the world’s survival. Ethanol can only supply 10%. Electric for everything is not feasible. Biodiesel is similar to ethanol. Both will add to food shortages. There is a 200 year coal supply that can take up the slack while sources like hydrophobic algae are developed. Liquid coal can be made with recycled water, and the land can be redeveloped into farms, forests, and lakes with minimal environmental damage – I have seen the photos of redeveloped coalmines.

  7. Joe says:

    All this sounds plausible — as it did when I first heard it years ago. I’ll do a post on this rather than another comment.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Stephen, have you ever done a land area calculation for the biomass portion of the CTL you propose?

    I used Tilman’s LIHD figure of 18.1 GJ/ha and came up with 709,000 sq. mi. for biomass to electricity and then powering efficient electric vehicles. Liquid powered vehicles would be much less efficient, and so take more land area (e.g. over 2,000,000 sq. mi. of prairie). Unless you’re talking only about sub-10% biomass (at which point it is really just coal), there isn’t enough land to do what you suggest.

    There are 1,000,000 sq. mi. of prairie land in the U.S., so the biomass electricity thing is possible, but it is of course unreasonable to use all of our land to power our vehicles: most should remain for habitat.

  9. Ron says:


    In another thread in this blog

    I asked about the hypothetical effects of letting our oil supplies run out without any efforts to reduce; how long that would take, what the climate effects would be. But nobody wanted to tackle my questions.

    You tossed out the figure of 50 years. Is this accurate?

    Assuming the validity of the AGW hypothesis, one could take a time frame of 50 years until the end of oil as good news.

    Certainly we would still have coal for quite a while longer (how long? by the way), but it seems to me that dwindling oil would force the hands of those in the oil-dependent industries to switch gears without government interference.

    Does this make any sense? Can you help clarify this?

  10. Earl Killian says:

    Stephen, I looked up Tilman’s paper, and it has biodiesel and ethanol from biomass numbers as well as the electricity number I remembered. Based on those estimates, it would take 2.3 million sq. mi. of land to produce ethanol from biomass to power the U.S. 2005 passenger cars and other 2-axle vehicles. It would take 1.4M sq. mi. if biodiesel is produced instead of ethanol. I used a CAFE of 35 (i.e. the 2020 target) for these estimates. Of course if I plugged in the expected growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) for 2050, the numbers would be much larger (at least 40% larger). These numbers are of course too large to allow biomass to be a complete solution for our transportation needs. In contrast, our 2005 VMT could be handled by a mere 3,600 sq. mi. if concentrated solar power is used to power EVs.

    The transition to electric vehicles will be through plug-in hybrids. At first, the PHEVs will have 20 miles of electric range, then 40, then 60. Even powering 20% of our VMT with biofuels looks difficult because of land area, but biodiesel from algae uses the least land area of all the biofuels, and it might be feasible. (Algae is still 7 to 41 times the land area of CSP, but that is much better than the 392 times of LIHD biodiesel.)

    I have another question for you: let’s presume that underground storage space for CO2 is finite. Do you think that coal electricity with CCS powering EVs or CTL with CCS powering liquid fueled vehicles uses up that finite storage space faster?

  11. Earl, I am in process of developing some of those numbers. I have been planning for some time to do a white paper on the topic, but securing financing for our project has been a higher priority. As you are no doubt aware, it is something of a complicated question, requiring assumptions of EROEI, and it differs from crop to crop, and region to region.

    Miscanthus does not grow the same in Oregon as it does in Illinois. Different crops have vastly different efficiencies in terms of inputs vs outputs. ETC.

    I have the luxury of not looking at it through a nationwide lens for the moment. My plant is in central-eastern Illinois.

    Let me start by saying that the best biomass sources are waste sources, as they do not cary any land footprint impacts, and they usually help prevent downstream pollution in some way. That is our first choice for biomass feedstock, but the total supply is limited.

    In terms of agricultural sources, the most efficient that I have found for our area is Miscanthus. I am working with the UIUC folks to get better data on the fuel requirements for miscanthus agriculture, but all appearances indicate that this is the most efficient primary agricultural biomass alternative. It carries added benefits of being noninvasive, requiring planting only once, and most importantly, requiring no pesticides, herbicides, or nitrogen fertilizers beyond the initial crop establishment year. All the farmer has to do is go out, harvest it, and transport to the plant for processing.

    They are seeing yields of about 15 tons per acre per year in the test plots. even out the BTU content, and you get the equivilent of growing about 10.4 tons per acre per year of Illinois coal (with substantial topsoil, biodiversity, nitrogen runoff, and other improvements vs corn agriculture).

    Gasification and FT yields about 2 barrels of fuel per ton of coal.

    10.4*2*42=approx 873.6 gallons per acre per year of diesel and jet fuels.

    To supply our whole plant would require roughly 412,000 acres.

    Those fuels would have a very high energy return on energy investment, but I cannot quantify that at present without better data on the fuel requirements of growing the feedstock (which are known to be very low, but i dont have the numbers).

    This works spectacularly well for central and southern Illinois, and many other regions of the US, but not for everywhere.

    Add to that, because of project technical risk constraints, we have to start off with a coal blend, and add the biomass over time to establish a known technical track record of gasification of that type of biomass beyond a certain blend. 100% biomass is a lot more difficult than 50% biomass with the present state of technology (not to mention the sheer logistical challenges of getting that much biomass production started up all at one time).

    Add to that, miscanthus would cost about $60/ton delivered maybe a bit more thanks to corn prices. This works economically at present oil prices, but adds over $100,000,000/year to feedstock costs versus coal at a 100% biomass feed. Carbon regulation can help dramatically to level this playing field.

    In terms of the “higher use” for underground storage space, I believe any use that gets carbon out of the atmosphere is good enough given that the experts tell us we need to be doing this about everywhere within the next 50 years, which is absolutely light speed for turning over the entire capital stock of global energy generation facilities.

    You would be surprised how little space that CO2 plume actually takes up when injected. I have seen the numbers for the Futuregen project (which is only about 30 miles from our project site in Illinois) and it is actually pretty surprising how large the carbon sink capacity that the experts indicate is.

    Theoretically, you can get more vehicle miles out of EVs for the given energy input at the plant level, but I cant buy an EV at the local Toyota dealership (yet). Until I an every other person in the US can, then it is at best a purely academic discussion, because as a developer I cannot influence availability of EVs. I CAN produce reduced or neutral carbon footprint diesel and jet fuels. There is also the added problem that nobody wants to pay for carbon neutral power. Oil prices are high and rising, and I can make money in that business (meaning I can get the infrastructure built). We need higher power prices to make widespread deployment of IGCC+CCS gasification power generation economically viable.

    Oh, and EV aircraft dont work for passenger travel because of energy density and weight issues.

    When I cant find a market for my diesel because everyone is demanding electricity, then I will switch to making electricity, but for now, trying to wish that pathway of producing energy and converting it to vehicle miles into existence is a waste of precious time (dont get me wrong, it should be pursued vigerously) when we can be making a carbon neutral, clean domestic source of fuels that works with the existing infrastructure. The clock is ticking, both on peak oil and on climate change.

    For now, we need bridge infrastructure. A LOT OF IT. We need it to be clean. And we need it to be generally compatible with an eventual transition to renewables and more highly efficient end users (EV vs ICE). Gasification and FT does that better any other alternative I have seen.

    – Stephen

  12. Earl Killian says:

    One issue I see with mixing biomass and coal is that it makes it difficult to return ash to the fields, since the coal often contains toxics. But without returning the non-carbon things we take from the fields, we will eventually find the land will no longer produce. Biomass without residue retur is not renewable.

    In terms of the broader issue of CTL+CCS, I think we need to keep questions of public policy separate from individual business decisions. An individual business can do something positive for the environment, but at the same time it might not be sound public policy to promote that activity if it cannot scale up. So, for example a carbon-negative biomass solution may be a good thing to do for 1% of our transportation, but if it cannot get above 10%, then I question whether public policy shouldn’t look elsewhere for solutions (though not hinder the business that is looking for a small niche).

    Using waste sources is an especially good thing, but probably the least scalable, and I would worry about not returning the waste to the fields to keep them fertile.

    If you are looking at Miscanthus, you should read this article:
    It claims that high-diversity plots showed three times the productivity of Panicum virgatum, and I assume Miscanthus is similar to that. It is also worthwhile checking out the supplementary materials online:;314/5805/1598/DC1

    I made an estimate of the land area required to fuel 2005 U.S. car transportation that was as generous as I could reasonably be to biofuels. Here is what I came up with:
    Note that this spreadsheet does not include the land area to grow the inputs to growing the crops listed therein. One might add factors over 2 in land area for that, but it is hard to do that calculation right (EROI is too crude, IMO). (One advantage of Tilman’s stuff is that the inputs are so low.) Even with this enormous optimism (not counting inputs), biofuels look problematic.

    My lack of enthusiasm for biofuels results from the extremely large land areas required to produce these fuels as shown in the above spreadsheet. Basically, taking a step through plants introduces great inefficiency.

    I do see a need for liquid fuels (e.g. jet fuel, and certain long-distance freight, back-up fuel for plug-in hybrids), and I believe that we may find plants useful in producing these fuels for a while. The land area required for just these uses is enormous by itself. We certainly don’t want to add in competition from transportation that can be done so much more efficiently.

    I have been ignoring the coal portion of CTL+CCS and concentrating on the biomass portion only because I don’t see any value in coal CTL+CCS. The CCS just brings liquid fuels produced this way down almost, but not quite, to the level of petroleum gasoline and diesel, doesn’t it? After all, no one is proposing tailpipe CCS, and so if the carbon atoms in the tank come from a fossil (e.g. coal), they are added to the atmosphere. Without the newly grown plant carbon added, CTL has no value.