The Senate's Bad Coal Idea

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THE VINE JANUARY 29, 2009

The Senate's Bad Coal Idea

Dan Weiss and Alexandra Kougentakis have written up a handy side-by-side comparison of the energy provisions in the House and Senate stimulus bills. (The House passed its version yesterday; the Senate bill has only cleared the appropriations committee so far.) On the Senate side, there's slightly more spending for renewable energy and transit, and a fair bit more money to retrain workers to weatherize all those homes and install all those solar panels. So far, so green.

There's one little catch, though. Weiss and Kougentakis note that the bill could also offer potentially billions more in loan guarantees for, among other things, coal-to-liquid plants—an appalling technology from a climate standpoint. Now, it's unclear from the text of the bill how much support liquid coal would actually get, but it's worth reiterating what a bad idea this would be. We're not just talking here about capturing and sequestering carbon from coal plants that provide electricity (there's a debate about whether that might provide a viable low-emissions source of energy someday, and the Senate bill contains about $4.6 billion to research that question). Liquefying coal to create a fuel substitute for gasoline is different, and with existing technology, liquid-coal fuel creates roughly twice as many greenhouse-gas emissions as the gasoline it would replace. Even in a more optimistic scenario, in which the coal-liquification plants find a way to capture their emissions, the Energy Department estimates that liquid-coal fuel would still emit 4 to 8 percent more carbon-dioxide over its lifecycle than ordinary gasoline does.

From an energy-independence perspective, liquid coal seems to be a far less effective means of weaning the country off oil than even using all that coal to power plug-in hybrids. (The latter would be cleaner, too, though not as clean as using, say, windmills.) From a climate perspective, though, it's deranged. China recently opened a new coal-to-liquid refinery to meet its own transportation needs, a trend that, if it continues, would make it flatly impossible to meet any sort of sensible emissions targets. And it'll be impossible to convince Beijing to shutter those plants if we're doing the exact same thing here at home.

P.S. Interestingly, the Air Force just abandoned its plans to build a coal-to-liquid plant in Montana.

P.P.S. Slight clarification. For the time being, China has suspended all further coal-to-liquid projects save for two plants run by the Shenua group; one just opened and one will be ready by 2013 or so. Thanks to Geoffrey Mullen in comments.

--Bradford Plumer

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