US looks to old Herr Kohle for energy security
Is clean coal worth slagging off?
This is well demonstrated in Schuylkill County, a depressed region which was once the heart of the anthracite coal industry in Pennsylvania. Coal polluted the water and air, destroying the environment of the county while leaving mountainous piles of waste called culm. Its only current industries are waste coal burning and accepting garbage from neighboring states. It reliably votes Republican for president and while its Congressional rep, Tim Holden, is a Democrat in name, he is indistinguishable from the GOP on energy and supports Fischer-Tropsch.
The county is the site of a proposed Fischer-Tropsch plant, to be built under the auspices of a coal waste management company and potentially run by Eastman Chemical. Its feedstock is to be the county's culm piles. In the Department of Energy's initial environmental impact statement, the waste management company was permitted to submit its figures as the assessment of the plant's production of carbon dioxide. Environmental groups wrote letters of protest and the DoE was compelled to issue a revision which tripled the original estimate to a rather astonishing 2.28 million tons of carbon dioxide/year of operation. The company had also made the rather hilarious claim that captured CO2 would simply be sold as the method of keeping it out of the atmosphere. The claim was withdrawn for the subsequent revision. "The sale of the CO2 byproduct would not occur for the foreseeable future," wrote DoE.
One of the focal points of happy news on Fischer-Tropsch plants is that carbon dioxide will simply be sequestered deep underground. Collected as a liquid, it is said that it can be pumped into deep unmineable coal seams or saline aquifers where it will smear into the bedrock, as simple as blotting a grease stain onto your tie. When this is published it's always presented as a done deal, the modern equivalent of a solution by magic - miraculous things being something the American public enjoys hearing of.
However, buried within the DoE assessment of the Schuylkill Fischer-Tropsch plant's technology and operating parameters is the statement: "[Carbon dioxide sequestration] is not an option because [the technology] is not sufficiently mature to be implemented..." The agency estimated its maturity was 15 years in the future.
Such considerations have resulted in a pattern for Fischer-Tropsch plants. Original estimates are made which low ball their costs. As the problem of using future technology to mitigate their carbon dioxide generation is more closely examined, their costs skyrocket. When that occurs, the Department of Energy begins backing away from bankrolling them. The Schuylkill County Fischer-Tropsch plant went in the space of about a year from costing $500m to $1bn. Now, future financing appears to be very wobbly.
Similarly, an electricity-generating Fischer-Tropsch plant, to be built and run by a company called FutureGen as a demonstrator in Illinois coal country, saw cost escalate to $1.8bn. At that point the Department of Energy said it wasn't quite ready to give it the green light. In Illinois, Fischer-Tropsch is supported by Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, both Democrats.
Because of this familiar pattern, eight proposed Fischer-Tropsch plants were either cancelled or delayed in 2007. While the United States is theoretically ready to put the pedal to the metal in production of greenhouse gas in the name of energy security and jobs, it's not quite yet a fait accompli. ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.