Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/01/28/us_clean_coal/

US looks to old Herr Kohle for energy security

Is clean coal worth slagging off?

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Science, 28th January 2008 12:15 GMT

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.

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.