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US looks to old Herr Kohle for energy security

Is clean coal worth slagging off?

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Analysis By now we all know the United States has no energy policy for the future. Rather, it does and it's a humiliating one: Global warming is a conspiracy by other countries trying to squelch the American dream and the right to buy elephantine SUVs. As one journalist covering autos for the Los Angeles Times put it in late December: "[Americans] feel they should be able to drive whatever they can afford, disregarding the fact that the sky ...is a part of the public commons."

The smarmy Bush administration spent seven years subverting science and obstructing progress so successfully, Congress eventually rolled over and passed a relatively insignificant energy bill which mandates a trivial upward revision of fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, to be applied by the time it will no longer matter.

Since the Bush administration has been so poor on energy, one standard line of thought might be that the Democrats, by default, must have better ideas. This doesn't seem so. For example, they are as willing to pander to corn growers in the Midwest for the sake of ethanol production as Republicans. And they often appear fairly Republican in their support of old King Coal, or as we'll get to in a minute, Herr Kohle.

In the US, the black diamond has been renamed "clean coal". This is to disguise it as something rather new and innovative, as opposed to what it really is - a variation on the energy policy of the Third Reich in World War II. Then clean coal was known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, chemistry to derive liquid fuels for the war machine from it.

The American military has long been interested in Fischer-Tropsch. Indeed, the technology was grabbed during what was called the Technical Oil Mission. A formerly classified postwar effort, it included key representatives from all the big American oil companies, tasked with finding out how it worked in the Third Reich in case of future need by the US army. Many of the details are now online at Fischer-Tropsch.Org, sponsored by Syntroleum, a company which has sopped up many of the patents for the processes.

As it involves fossil fuel manipulation and burning, there is no getting around the production of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. This has been the object of a clever obfuscation in which pushers of clean coal commonly claim it to be pollution-free. This is semantically true in one small aspect: Fischer-Tropsch fuels can be made relatively free of sulfur compounds or mercury, for example, by separating contaminants off during the process in which syngas - the reacting product of gasified coal - is catalyzed into usable fuel. Naturally, it doesn't get around carbon dioxide produced during the process. That's an amount which is quite substantial, along with the evolution of greenhouse gas produced by subsequent use of the fuel.

Typical of the disinformation used to sell clean coal was a statement by an alleged "environmental group" supporting a Fischer-Tropsch coal plant proposed for Indiana and covered in a recent edition of USA Today. "It's a technology that has the ability to take air pollution out of the debate over coal," said an astroturfer from the Orwellishly-named Clean Air Task Force, a coal industry lobbying group based in Boston.

Unsurprisingly, astroturfing for clean coal is a common tactic. The Charleston City Paper, an alternative newsweekly which serves a region where presidential candidates have been targeted by the clean coal lobby, labelled non-profit organization Americans for Balanced Energy Choices a front for astroturfers. On the web its placeholder is learnaboutcoal.org, where "an array of young people, many of whom appear to be under ten years of age, enlighten visitors about the happy, hunky-dory world of coal," wrote the paper.

The rule of thumb on clean coal politics is simple: If the pol is campaigning in an economically dead part of the nation's coal country, the candidate will be for clean coal, and global warming be damned. And the pol is as likely to be a Democrat as a Republican.

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