Coal to liquid continues to be the worst idea ever

coaltoliquid2.jpgDemocrats in Congress continue to push forward with proposals to heavily subsidize plants for converting coal to liquid fuel, which we previously noted is the worst idea in the universe. The surprisingly varied response to our earlier post demonstrated that we didn’t do enough work to show why coal-to-liquid technology is such a misguided notion. So here it is again, with a bit more analytical heft.

One fact that sometimes goes unappreciated is that it takes energy to make energy. Or rather, it takes energy to deliver energy in a usable form. When you pump gas into your tank, you’re purchasing a consumer product that sits at the end of a long supply chain. In the case of gasoline, that supply chain begins at an oil well; traverses oceans and continents via tanker and pipeline; routes through refineries and distribution centers; and finally fans out to gas stations all across the country.

Every step in that process requires energy for processing and transportation. The amount of energy varies dramatically depending on the nature of the product. There’s a technical term for this: energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI. Which is just a fancy way of analyzing the energy content of a fuel based not just on what you get out of it, but also on what you put into it.

EROEI explains my offhand crack about corn ethanol in the previous post. The process of turning corn into a substance that will fit in a gas tank requires almost as much energy as the corn ethanol itself provides. That conversion process itself is powered by fossil fuels, which means that corn ethanol isn’t much better than gasoline from a carbon perspective.

Now let’s consider coal to liquid. A lot of energy is required to turn coal into diesel fuel. Consider, again, this graphic from the New York Times:


You can see that coal-to-liquid technology releases more than twice as much CO2 as petroleum on a comparable basis. And now, roughly speaking, you know why: you have to spend a lot of energy powering the conversion process to diesel.

Fair enough, but coal is domestically produced, so isn’t coal-to-liquid a step toward energy independence? Actually, it’s a step backwards. If we want to use coal to power our cars, there is a much more straightforward way: turn the coal into electricity — which we’re already pretty good at — and use it to power plug-in hybrids. Because of the higher EROEI of using coal to create electricity, we could displace a far larger amount of imported oil this way at a comparable level of carbon emissions.

So: bad for the environment, bad for energy independence, and bad economically. The only thing coal-to-liquid technology is good for is channeling money to the coal industry. Which is why these bills are now racing forward.

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  1. Anonymous - June 13, 2007

    Is there a list of the “Bill” makers that we can write to…
    This is obviously a Wall Street backed bill that will only profit the fat cats “again”.

  2. Anonymous - June 13, 2007

    Is there a list of the “Bill” makers that we can write to…
    This is obviously a Wall Street backed bill that will only profit the fat cats “again”.

  3. Fernando Magyar - June 13, 2007

    I have a dream, every roof tile a solar panel, on every unobstructed pole by the side of our roads a small wind generator. Decentralized power generation to produce hydrogen by electrolysis of water. A hydrogen fuel cell power generator in every basement. Conservation, conservation, conservation. No waste through recycling, no more carbon emissions from the greedy who monopolizes our energy production. Any chance we could leave the 1800’s behind and arrive in the 21st century?

  4. Anonymous - June 13, 2007

    You idiots can even prove that global warming is a problem let alone expound on how to stop it!!!!

  5. Fernando Magyar - June 13, 2007

    Try reading the IPCC report, not that I really think deniers like yourself will be swayed by an international scientific and governmental consesus. To understand a bit more about how people like you think, try visiting this blog:
    Cheers from an idiot.
    Fernando Magyar

  6. Fernando Magyar - June 13, 2007

    seems that link doesn’t work here is another:

  7. Dave - June 13, 2007

    If done right, coal to liquids can be very effective in reducing green house gas emissions. It must have carbon capture and storage, and use at least 30% biomass. This not only cuts down on CO2 but other pollutants as well. Furthermore, in coal states like Ohio it is a viable option given the surplus of coal and the poor economy. Coal to Liquid also gives an opportunity to implement best management practices in regard to agriculture-such as no till farming and easements. It is a tool in the tool box to combat climate change.

  8. Will - June 13, 2007

    Carbon capture technology is not proven, so let’s take it out of the picture. If you pump CO2 underground, it can leak out over centuries, just when our descendents will be recovering from the apocalypse that we’re creating for them.
    I hope anonymous is reading this and thinking I’m nuts.

  9. James - June 13, 2007

    You only mention hybrid vehicles in your blog. The original NY Times article mentions the largest customer of diesel’ized coal will be the US military. You can’t plug in a jet fighter unless you have a really, really long power cord.

  10. BCC - June 13, 2007

    I accept that coal will be part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future; we have so much of it and it’s as cheap as dirt. Same for India and China. But I’d much rather see sequestration of CO2 from conventional coal plants, and/or Greenfuel-type recycling of the CO2 into liquid fuel.
    F-T coal-to-liquids is, as the article states, a Bad Idea.

  11. Fernando Magyar - June 13, 2007

    “If done right, coal to liquids can be very effective in reducing green house gas emissions. It must have carbon capture and storage,”
    Agreed, and I could live with that as one of the tools in our toolbox of energy independence. It certainly is not a panacea. On a side note I lived in Brazil in the early days of the ethanol revolution. I was driving a 100% sugarcane derived ethanol powered VW Fox back in 1983, that wasn’t a panacea either but it certainly helped Brazil acheive energy independence from imported oil today, not a bad thing at all. However I’m very leery of having the chickens overseen by the foxes of the energy industry.

  12. Adam Stein - June 13, 2007

    you can’t plug in a jet fighter
    This is total misdirection. Assuming we are going to continue to use oil, all that matters is the aggregate amount we use, not whether it goes into cars or planes. If we want to minimize oil imports, the way to do this is by displacing the maximum amount of usage possible. In other words, plug-in hybrids. There’s no getting around the fact that CTL is a wasteful use of coal.

  13. Anonymous - June 13, 2007

    Please, please, please note that the Power Plant for the Capitol Complex (ie Congressional buildings) is a coal burning plant. Not only is it an eyesore to the landscape of the Capitol Complex, but it provides steam heat. Your energies should be directed to our wonderful congress that has done little.

  14. James - June 13, 2007

    We need to do everything we can to educate each other, our neighbors, and anyone (and there are a LOT of these folks) not yet on board, about what coal-to-liquid technologies and other “alternatives” really mean. I see blantant waste everywhere I look. For every gallon of rain water I catch off of my roof I see 10,000 gallons sprayed over nearby golf courses (and I live in Arizona where about 80% evaporates before soaking into the ground). For every thoughtful alternative to conserve energy, water, whatever, I see blatant waste that erases any of my efforts. I do construction projects and was forced to use about 500 gallons of water to “clean” a client’s driveway of about 5 pounds of dust and dirt (I tried to tell them that the next rain would do the same thing). With a mindset like this how do we ever start to instill a mentality to conserve among the population? Feeling a little disheartened today, sorry. Most people are SO out of touch and still think that conservation is some hippie, weirdo mentality.

  15. Anonymous - June 13, 2007

    thanks for this informative post. We are destroying coal country already (google “mountaintop removal mining” or go to CTL will only exacerbate this already tragic situation

  16. Bob Stebbins - June 13, 2007

    It is my understanding that coal contains a lot of sulfur because if derives from plant residues. Greater use of coal would produce more acid rain. petrolium also is derived from fossil plant residues, but ‘low sulfur” oil is prefered. Does anyone know more about this?

  17. Rajesh Rawat - June 15, 2007

    Very relevant topic for addressing both the energy dependency and climate change issues. I totally agree with the author that coal can only be useful to generate electricity if combined with the CO2 capture and storage. Coal conversion to liquid fuel with technologies such as Fischer-Tropsch process is very expensive and doesn’t make sense from the environment point of view. Unfortunately, China is spending a lot of resources in pursuing a similar path.

    I’m a big supporter of biodiesel from non-food crops. I’ve recently started a projects with poor farmers in Indian villages to grow jatropha in their unused wasteland. To find more and support this project, please visit

  18. meagen - June 18, 2007

    Only semi-related, because you made me think of coal:
    I live in Cleveland and our electricity is currently coal powered. I’ve been backing candidates who have concrete goals to change to alternative energy sources. We recently visited my brother-in-law in Washington, DC, and on the Pennsylvania turnpike we passed several billboards that boasted “Coal Energy: Now Clean & Green with New Technology.” Is this possible? Their website is They are obviously trying to save the fossil fuel economy, but in browsing the site I found nothing that supports their ecological claims. I’d love to see some research and analysis of this puzzle, as it would effect some of my political and economic decision making.

  19. Adam Stein - June 18, 2007

    Meagan —
    Burning coal creates CO2. There’s no way to sidestep that fact. So your skepticism is warranted.
    Carbon sequestration is so far unproven technology, but might someday be useful — perhaps “necessary” is a better way to put it — way to undo some of the bad effects of coal. But calling coal “clean and green” is always going to be a stretch.
    – Adam

  20. John - June 20, 2007

    I read Barack Obama’s web site regarding his environmental position, and it looks like he invented a new oxymoron:
    Clean coal
    Imagine that. Of course, he might not want to take any credit for this.

  21. obewan - June 20, 2007

    Plug in hybrids efficient? Always remember only 40% of the electricity we produce gets to the end user. Carbon sequestration is unproven? Energy firm Kinder Morgan every day captures over 1 billion cubic ft of co2, compresses it, and transports it to Texas oil fields where it is injected into the ground where it remains.

  22. Adam Stein - June 20, 2007

    That transmission efficiency figure by itself is pretty much meaningless. What matters is end-to-end well-to-wheels efficiency, which includes transmission efficiency and everything else. And electric cars do quite well in this analysis. The Tesla Roadster gets the carbon equivalent of roughly 170 mpg.
    The only place carbon sequestration is used today is a means of forcing more oil out of the ground. As a long-term, large-scale strategy for reducing carbon emissions, it is not yet proven.

  23. Tom Harris - September 9, 2008

    I would appreciate a more detailed response rather than a generalization that seems to expect the reader to accept on faith. First under what terms and conditions would CTL make sense. If for example the waste heat from the gasification process could be converted to electric power, what is the impact? Further if the sequestration were used in enhanced oil recovery (EOR), thereby creating access to new domestic sources, what is the impact on your chart? If the energy required to convert coal to biosafe liquid fuel were derived from a geothermal or hydropower source, what is the impact? If the coal, the sequestration and the EOR, the CTL plant, and all related components of the process were located at one site where it was welcomed,so that there is minimal or no EROEI what is the impact? I am pleased to say that such a site exists and I look forward to your response.

  24. meghan - October 30, 2008

    Im doing a research project on alternative energy resources. I really need some input. Any ideas?
    Any help at all would be greatly appreciated.

  25. CTL supporter - August 20, 2009

    lets look at both sides of CTL.
    This article argues that CTL will increase CO2 emissions.
    According to DOE in 2009 CTL w/ carbon capture will actually REDUCE CO2 emissions by 5-12%
    So really, there is no impact on CO2 emissions from CTL use.
    Actually carbon capture has been proven, just not on a large scale.In Beulah ND there is a coal gasification plant that does successfully store CO2 underground. And it stays underground.
    “turn the coal into electricity

  26. his sister - August 20, 2009

    That guy right up in front of me knows what he’s talkin about.

  27. his sister - August 20, 2009

    That guy right up in front of me knows what he’s talkin about.

  28. CTL supporter's supporter - August 21, 2009

    I second his sister: CTL supporter has his stuff down cold. A well argued response from anti CTL camp would be pretty cool… kinda get a little debate going here….