“Drill, baby, drill” is only one solution to a domestic oil problem. The coal industry says that if Americans want more transportation fuel, they need look no further than coal states like Pennsylvania.
“Drill, baby, drill” is only one solution to a domestic oil problem. The coal industry says that if Americans want more transportation fuel, they need look no further than coal states like Pennsylvania. Engineers can also turn coal in to gasoline and diesel. So why aren’t people chanting “dig, baby, dig?” From the third report in our series on coal from WHYY’s health and science desk, Kerry Grens reports.
To turn coal into a liquid fuel, first the coal needs to become a gas. Chuck Taylor at the Department of Energy’s labs in Pittsburgh, explains.
Taylor: We heat it very rapidly to a high temperature where we convert everything into a gas. Essentially, break it’s chemical bonds apart and make simple molecules out of it, such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
Taylor gives me a tour of the experimental gasification room, where his team is testing out different methods turning that gas into a liquid fuel.
Taylor: These here are pressure control valves, these are switching valves. This is all now done by computer out in the control room.
The technology isn’t new. Germans converted coal to liquid during world war two, and South Africa does the same today. Companies in Pennsylvania are also interested in becoming the first to build an American coal-to-liquids plant – including WMPI in Gilberton. John Rich is the company’s president.
Rich: The whole effect of which is to create thousands of jobs, reverse the situation we hear about every day now with the economy. Trap dollars and jobs here in this country. Displace foreign oil with domestic production that’s cleaner, and safer and cheaper than the foreign oil we’re currently exporting dollars for.
Rich’s proposal for a coal-to-liquids plant has faced considerable resistance from residents and environmental advocates.
A video produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows hilltops exploding to make way for coal mining.
VIDEO: Liquid coal is not the answer to America’s energy problems.
Joseph Minott, the executive director of the Clean Air Council, agrees.
Minott: I think environmentally it makes no sense at all. It is incredibly intensive energy-wise to do that, when you create the liquid from the coal, the fuel from the coal you release a lot of carbon dioxide at that point. Then of course when you use it as a fuel you release the carbon dioxide again.
That’s why companies like Consol Energy based in Pittsburgh are interested in ways to minimize carbon dioxide emissions, says Consol’s spokesperson Tom Hoffman. His company is also interested in building the first American coal to liquids plant.
Hoffman: I don’t think and we don’t think as a company it will be possible to build these plants without having the carbon capture and storage capabilities.
Hoffman is referring to the process where carbon dioxide is removed from emissions and pumped underground. So far, however, none of the existing coal-to-liquids plants in the world capture and store carbon dioxide – yet.
Fletcher: The idea of coming with very low emissions plants is very much within the realm of technical possibilities.
Jerry Fletcher is a professor at West Virginia University, and director of its US China Energy Center.
Fletcher: The economics of it are still to be proven I think, but I think that the potential to do this in an environmentally friendly way is possible.
His group is collaborating with a Chinese company to launch the first coal to liquids plant that includes carbon dioxide capture. The result will be diesel fuel, costing about 65 to 80 dollars a barrel.
Fletcher: I think the biggest single challenge to the whole coal to liquids area is to coming up with reasonable approaches to carbon management. Without that I don’t believe that these approaches would be probably socially acceptable, even if they were economically feasible I think it would be difficult.
The Chinese plant is expected to go online in January. Hoffman at Consol says it’s a valuable experiment for American companies on the cusp of breaking ground.
Hoffman: We’re fortunate in a sense that you’ve got the Chinese already pressing ahead with that because it helps us learn what works and what doesn’t work as well and make the improvements in our designs ultimately.
But John Rich at WMPI sees no reason for waiting for the outcome of the Chinese experiment. He says oil refineries are not expected to capture and store carbon, so why should the coal industry.