And you thought corn ethanol was bad

Written by adam


You know how in a horror movie, everyone cringes in their seats while the protagonists, in opposition to all fair warnings and plain old common sense, march blithely toward whatever grisly fate awaits them? This is kind of like that.

Prodded by intense lobbying from the coal industry, lawmakers from coal states are proposing that taxpayers guarantee billions of dollars in construction loans for coal-to-liquid production plants, guarantee minimum prices for the new fuel, and guarantee big government purchases for the next 25 years…

Coal companies are hardly alone in asking taxpayers to underwrite alternative fuels in the name of energy independence and reduced global warming. But the scale of proposed subsidies for coal could exceed those for any alternative fuel, including corn-based ethanol.

The basic idea is to turn coal into gasoline as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

As the big red bar on the right shows, liquefied coal is more than twice as carbon intensive as petroleum. If we assume that technologically unproven and extremely expensive carbon sequestration technology is used to capture some of the excess emissions, coal is still roughly as bad as petroleum.

This folly is being pushed by a coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers. At the same time, various climate change bills are wending their way through Congress. If some version of both pieces of legislation are passed, we could find ourselves in a situation in which we are simultaneously taxing and subsidizing coal.

One of the deeper ironies of this boondoggle is that, if Congress is really concerned about energy security, coal-to-liquid isn’t even the best use of our coal reserves. We could simply use the coal to generate electricity for plug-in hybrids. This would displace twice as much foreign oil with a fraction of the carbon emissions.

There are really too many perversities here for me to catalog. Read the whole article. Then call your rep.

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  1. Melinda

    I hate to disapoint, but there is no one single solution wrapped up in neat a little package Adam. If you think you’ve discoverd such a panacea, you should run for president yourself. It’s going to take a broad variety of iniatives, none of which are perfect when standing alone. The goal is an overall reduction from multiple efforts. And your thinly veiled insinuation that Democrats aren’t really concerned about Energy Security, leaves me to believe you prefer the last Republican/White House Energy bill with it’s tax breaks for Big Oil and trampling of decades worth of hard won environmental laws. And finally, if your going to make profound declarations of wisdom, such as “We should simply use the coal to generate electricity for plug in hybrids. This would displace twice as much foreign oil with a fraction of the carbon emissions”….you might try a cursory glance at a few long established environmental facts. Coal fired electric plants my dear, are the single greatest industrial source of carbon emissions. I’ve linked a report from DOE for your review, and for convenience of TerraPass readers, a footnote to one of the charts in the report, that sums up what any casual observer, other than yourself, likely knows already.

    “Coal-fired generation contributes over 90 percent of CO2 emissions in the East North Central, West North Central, East South Central, and Mountain Census Divisions and 84 percent in the South Atlantic Census Division (Table 2). Nearly two-thirds of the Nation’s CO2 emissions from electricity generation are accounted for by the combustion of coal for electricity generation in these five regions where most of the Nation’s coal-producing States are located. Consequently, these regions have relatively high output rates of CO2 per kilowatthour.”

  2. Adam Stein

    Liquefied coal is not a solution to anything. It is the opposite of a solution. It is ineffective as a way to achieve energy security and extremely dangerous to the environment. It is not perfect when standing alone or standing together. It is bad in every way.
    I am well aware of the environmental impact of coal. That’s why I mentioned the “deep irony” of the fact that plain old coal-fired electricity is much environmentally friendlier than liquefied coal. It takes a special type of badness to make coal-fired electricity look like the better environmental option.
    This post has nothing to do with the Democratic stance on energy security. If you don’t like Big Oil, what is it that you find appealing about Big Coal?

  3. melinda

    If you don’t like Big Oil, what is it that you find appealing about Big Coal?

    Energy Security.

  4. Dave

    Good comments. I just want to add that carbon capture and storage is already being done in the neatherlands (1 million tons a year) as well as in michigan (enhanced oil recovery). Personnally I wish we can do away with coal b/c its possibly the worst thing you can burn. However, being from Ohio, just “just say no” is not an option. With the current bill in Congress for subsidizing c to l plants, enviros should try to get incentives in there that give higher subsidizes for plants that use carbon capture and storage as well as 20-30% biomass (which by the way gets you significant reductions in CO2 when compared to petroleum based). But yes I agree with comment one that it will take a multi pronged approach to reduce our emissions.

  5. Paul

    Pardon me for being simple-minded, but isn’t coal made of carbon?
    This proposal to guarantee construction loans, minimum prices, and sales for 25 years is foolhardy at best. The money to pay for that should -must- be spent on developing truly carbon-free sources of power like wind and solar, and continued efforts to increase power efficiency at all levels from small homeowner to big business to countries.
    Leave the coal and oil in the ground where can do no harm.

  6. richard schumacher

    No, there is no one panacea for the world’s energy problem, but coal is the single worst element of the problem itself. Ignoring the economics of capture and transport, there is no known long-term storage method for most of the CO2 that would be produced, so it is likely to escape to the atmosphere and further contribute to global warming. Temporarily sequestering the CO2 by injecting it into oil wells to increase petroleum production liberates still more fossil carbon and thus exacerbates the problem.

    Energy security for the United States via coal comes at the price of inundating our coastal regions. If global warming continues apace this will happen in a few centuries, just about the time the US will have run out of domestic coal. What will we have gained? Our grandchildren will curse us as idiots for not dismantling all coal-fired power plants with all deliberate speed and replacing them with safe, clean nuclear, hydro, wind, ground-based Solar, and ultimately space-based Solar power.

    As for vehicle fuels, the subject of the coal-to-liquids lunacy, the Fischer-Tropsch process for making liquid fuels can use atmospheric CO2 instead of coal as raw material. The energy required can come from any of the carbon-neutral sources named above. All of the CO2 produced by the burning of such artificial fuel would have originated in the atmosphere and thus make no net contribution to global warming. This alternative does not protect jobs in coal producing states, but it would help save the world from global warming.

  7. Russ

    Per Melinda’s comment, there is no (“one”) single solution. Unfortunately, a broad variety of imperfect initiatives, standing alone or piled together, don’t solve the problem either.

    Most, if not all, of them are imperfect because they fail to produce much net energy, if any. They consume fossil hydrocarbon-based energy to produce a secondary form.

    Bioethanol is propped up by both the corn subsidy and the $0.51 per gallon ethanol subsidy. We cannot produce enough corn-ethanol to meet even 1% of our transportation energy consumption on a net energy basis. Fake energy balances are not uncommon. Cellulosic ethanol is still in the mirage stage of development, ever-promising and ever-demanding of U.S. government loan guarantees.

    Tar sands can produce net energy, assuming that enough input energy can be supplied. The declining productivity of Canadian natural gas wells poses future limits. The latest fix is a proposal to build nuclear power plants to provide the requisite heat.

    Shale oil has been and may always be the most problematic next best thing. Among other problems, it must deal with an EROEI limit as well as input energy supply, water supply, and environmental impact limitations.

    The energy issue is bungled by politicians of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Technical ignorance and shameless pandering to “interest” groups is a non-partisan exercise. The pathetic collection of current Presidential candidates speaks for itself.

  8. Stacy

    Why don’t we just bite the proverbial bullet and finally take the necessary leap out of the neolithic era of internal combustion engines altogether? Electricity can be generated without the use of ANY non-renewable resources whatsoever. Whether it be via the use of solar, wind, hydro-, nuclear (not my favorite option), etc. This doesn’t need to denigrate into a political discussion at all. It’s merely a question of who is going to take the necessary steps away from Big Oil/Coal and assume their place in the 21st Century. Infernal combustion engines are a thing of the past. Let’s look to the future already…

  9. terry

    coal is the worst!! that is why it has been illegal to burn it in our homes for years. the air quality has improved immensely since it has been banned. nuclear is the answer going forward and we must enbrace it quickly. France produces 70% of its electricity from nuclear and they were one of the nations most opposed to attacking Iraq. does this tell you something???

  10. Matt

    More Nukes baby. More Nukes.

  11. Jim

    Man…sometimes I feel like giving up and putting my head in the sand like the majority of people on this earth. It looks like the only way we are going to stop using mass quantities of coal, oil, and other non-renewable energy sources is when there is no longer profit in them (for those few individuals who profit from then that is). I hate to sound cynical but it is disheartening to read about the coal to liquid initiatives being supported by our representatives and the people who stand to profit from this. Sometimes I feel that we are on the exact same path as the Maya or the prehistoric inhabitants of Easter Island and arid southwest (just to name a few). These folks were all keenly aware that they were burning their resources out from under themselves but unable to do anything about it. History repeats itself. My wife, son and I live in a 1,250 square foot passive solar that was extremely efficient (read: cheap) to build and even more so to live in. We burned exactly 15 bags of pellets keeping ourselves warm last winter (around $75 [we have no other heat source]), and cool our home with an evaporative cooler (as opposed to an air conditioner). We collect 2,000 gallon of rain water at a time and use this to water our garden and house plants. In the meantime we are surrounded by seemingly “liberal minded” people in their 3000+ square foot homes (some with two massive air conditioning units each) that use ungodly amounts of energy, water, and space. The common thread is an arrogance and hypocrisy that demands we each “get our share”. Human nature I suppose. By going greener I have realized the opportunity cost you give up by giving your money to the gas, electric, and water companies (or the bank by mortgaging a large and expensive house). Economically, going green is extremely beneficial for the individual and promotes an even distribution of wealth. It works like this. My wife and I use the money we save (the money not going to a huge home mortgage or the utility companies) to pay the mortgages on several land investments. Fourth-grade math tells us that at the current interest rates (around 6% annual) it takes just $7 per month (exactly 1.5 lattes) to pay principal and interest on $1000 over a typical 30-year note. Save $150 a month and you are sitting on a $21,428.57 piece of property! Save $300 and you are leveraged into a $43,000 investment.
    We all must make individual decisions and learn to be independent (as much as possible) of big oil. To wait for the oil companies to let go of their profits is environmental suicide.

  12. Jim

    Amen Stacey…
    I agree with you 100% “This doesn’t need to denigrate into a political discussion at all”. Too many times these discussions end up in political, brain-flexing showdowns. I say Shut Up and Act Already! And if you are already doing something about it then DO MORE! If you are like me you hate to spend money on stupid things like (neolithic) energy sources. It is a simple economic decision. Start in your own back yard: collect rain water, turn off the lights, ride a bike to work once in a while, carpool, take the bus, instead of turning up the heat try putting on a sweater, instead of turning on the AC take off your sweater, talk to your boss about working from home once or twice a week, vacation close to home, eat in, be uncomfortable once in a while, and last (but certainly not least), don’t flush so often.

  13. KC

    Actually the perfect solution already exists.

    Problem is that too many people are lazy and greedy.

    It just takes a little more caring by all people and less focus on a few people getting rich.

    Solution: Stop being wasteful. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Compost. Invest in solar and wind energy instead of lobbyists, bribes and subsidies.

  14. Tod Brilliant

    A question I have for all of you is this:
    Given that Obama supports liquid coal, if he gets the Dem nod for President – will you vote for him?
    If you’re a Dem, you’re screwed on the eco-front unless Edwards gets the nod. A vote for Obama or Clinton is a vote agains the Earth. How will you reconcile this? My guess is you won’t. You’ll just vote party line because you believe you have to.

  15. Jerry

    The real problem is confusion and lack of usable information. I fault a media that thrives on controversy, but they could also be part of the solution to the problem. I didn’t know corn based ethanol was a problem, I never heard of celulose based ethanol, and I have been following the E85 Program.
    I want to use the most effective source of fuel for reducing both green house gases and freeing us from foriegn oil.

    Perhaps all of our efforts should be focused on educating people like Obama who seems to be a good man and on educating Clinton who might leap at an opportunity to actually get it right.

  16. Jim

    Yes; Stop being wasteful. Reduce, reuse, and recycle (Comment by KC). It will be up to the private sector, and the individual, to take the lead. Once this is done politicians will notice and jump on board in order to gain votes. Once again, how easy it is to slide into a political debate? Because it is just so damn seductive and easy.

  17. Al

    High CO2 will bring us back to the world as it was 25 million years ago. Almost no ice anywhere, nice. About 30 million years ago India decided to crash into Asia and create the Himalayas. The erosion of those mountains creates lots of reactive rock dust which steals CO2 from the atmosphere, which results in our world with its intermittent ice ages. There have been at least 50 of them in the last 3 million years. By making lots of CO2 we can bring the world back its normal balmy condition. There will be a few problems, but we are adaptable. Palm trees in Siberia and Canada, wonderful! Of course as soon as we have burnt up all the carbon, the orbital forcing will bring in the next ice age. Unless, of course, we can figure out a way to prevent the erosion of the Himalayas.

  18. Al

    Heck, it’s all true. I just finished reading “Climate Change in Prehistory, the End of the Age of Chaos”, and “Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum”. I recommend both of them for anyone interested in understanding climate change. We will have converted all the available carbon on Earth to CO2 in about 300 years. The well-documented orbital variations of earths orbit around the sun will then bring in the overdue ice age. The present increase in population will make any personal reduction in carbon use peripheral. We have much better reasons to reduce our use of carbon; it’s going to start getting mighty expensive. Personally I have replaced all my light bulbs with fluorescents, installed a high efficiency furnace, and drive a high mileage car as little as possible. But the increasing wealth of the rest of the world, combined with the inevitable population growth will make my efforts moot. We have a very large wind farm on the hills 10 miles from my house. I kind of like to see them spinning their blades and making carbon-free power. I also have a small sailboat that I use for recreation. I might use 3 gallons of fuel in a season getting in and out of the marina. But I am constantly being passed by 20 gallon per hour behemoths. I yearn for gasoline to rise to the $5-10 per gallon range.
    [Ed. — Actually, you’re right, there’s validity to this. Ice ages are caused by variations in the earth’s orbit and other forcing functions. Apologies for misinterpreting what you were saying. We’re still not as sanguine about the palm trees in Siberia, though.]

  19. Mark

    I agree with others that this shouldn’t be a politically divisive issue. Pols on both sides of the aisle are guilty of misrepresenting the facts on coal-to-liquids. From a climate change perspective, the numbers are undeniable — using more coal will generate more CO2. Adam is doing a great service to point this out.

  20. Jim

    Ahhh…it is good to be reminded that, in the end, it is our sense of humor that will cushion any blow.

  21. Carrie

    Not that I don’t agree with the original posting, Adam, but the New York Times? How about a citation… What study is this graph from? Who funded the research? How recent is it?

  22. Adam Stein

    I clipped the image to fit, but the original lists the citation. All data is from the EPA.

  23. KGrandia

    The largest deposits of coal in the world lie under American soil. I have been watching this strategy develop for quite some time now, it will be really tough to convince the federal government to NOT exploit this domestic resource.
    I would suspect that this is more than just a little bit of the reason we are seeing reluctance by the US administration to commit to anything climate related at next week’s G8 meeting

  24. whiterabbit

    As someone else pointed out, politicos are not always the best informed, especially on climate issues, for a number of reasons previously discussed.

    How about we send Adam to Washington to inform them?

    Seriously, while some of these politicos are undoubtedly unduly influenced by King Coal’s big bucks and Corn Ethanol’s numerous Midwest votes, I bet some of them just plain don’t know the facts. Adam seems like a clear, incisive speaker – register him as a lobbyist, arm him with facts, reputable scientific references, and send him in! Is it not worth a shot, assuming he is willing to go? Are you, Adam? At least to speak to the top tier of candidates?

    Aside: I currently take heart in the fact that Barack Obama’s website dropped all reference to “coal for cars”.
    I’m hoping it was folks like those on this site who convinced them to do so. Keep up the thoughtful work here, folks.

  25. Emily

    “In the meantime we are surrounded by seemingly ‘liberal minded’ people in their 3000+ square foot homes (some with two massive air conditioning units each)”

    Forgive me for wandering off-topic a bit, but I want to address a misconception here, for the benefit of any two-story homeowners who would like to reduce their footprint just a bit: I know it seems counterintuitive, but I spoke with a professional air-conditioner installation guy who is in the business of reducing his customers’ power bills, and he says a two-story house with two a/c units is actually more energy efficient than a two-story house with a single unit.
    As he explained it to me, you can’t effectively or efficiently cool a two-story home with a single unit, because you are starting with two different temperatures. We all know that heat rises. This means that with a single system, the upstairs is always too hot, the downstairs is always too cold, and the compressor is always running. With two systems — one for each story — you can cool the two floors separately, thus making the whole house comfortable without having to run the compressor constantly.
    Not saying there’s any legitimate reason for anyone with fewer than a dozen children to own a 3,000-square-foot home, but if people are going to do it, they — and the environment — will be better off with two a/c systems than with just one.
    As for the flippant remark someone made about liquefied coal being the answer to “energy security”: The easy answer to energy security is to raise the CAFE standards. I personally think the current gas prices are the best thing that’s ever happened to the environment. Most people don’t care about the environment. They only care about their own pocketbooks. Kick ’em in the bank account, and they start behaving like responsible adults. Amazing.

  26. dmac

    Friends this open discussion is to be commended. Adam good job. Let us not forget Julia Bonds and her groups struggle with mountain top removal. Let us not forget the solar plans of Germany and Japan. Thinking for tommarrow and applying it today. The choice for extra-tressial fuel for travel was solar-photovoltic cells. Eco-poly should be required courses at every college & high school, that’s my thinking. thxs dmac

  27. Jim

    “I want to address a misconception here, for the benefit of any two-story homeowners who would like to reduce their footprint just a bit”-Emily
    To clarify, I am surrounded by 3,000-square-foot ONE STORY homes…
    But my point is this (and one that we all know too well): there is an extreme amount of hypocrisy going on and “do as I say, not as I do” seems to be the law of the land. I am disheartened by seemingly environmentally conscious individuals who consume incredible amounts of energy, water, and space. I am not sure how one reconciles this in their mind. But alas…we are all victims of our own “needs” (or wants). And as Emily pointed out…the high price of gas IS one of the best things that can happen to the green movement. Let gas go to $20 a gallon (like it is [in relative terms] in most of the world). Hit people in their wallet and you will really hear them squawk.
    I lived in Panama while in the Peace Corps. People swing a machete and make around $10 a day. Gas is $3 a gallon there. In relative terms that would be like people in the U.S. paying $30+ a gallon. Now we understand why busses are so damned crowded!!! You rarely see someone driving in a car alone in much of the world. You want to see carpooling really take off in America? $20 a gallon should do it…

  28. jack

    Dear Jim of the 1250 SF house –
    A well planned life. Thank you. The more we let old solar energy stay stored where it is – in coal or in oil and especially living wood – the better off we will be. We need to concentrate on solar energy and wind energy and convert those energies into kinetic energy through the use of flywheels. Discover magazine did an article on Flywheel Power some four five years ago. They featured a father and son team who were working on using flywheels with frictionless electronic bearings to generate big amounts of stored energy that was portable. The solar intake would power up the flywheels to 1oo,ooo rps (sic – revolutions per second, yes per second.) Then a switch is thrown and they become generators. And they are portable. I have not heard of any follow up. Anyone know anything on this?

  29. Martha Booz

    You asked about flywheel energy. Science News magazine (May 19, 2007 issue, vol 171, page 312) has an interesting article on flywheels, “Spinning into Control”. The authors mention work at the Univ of Texas at Austin using new materials, and working on flywheels big enough to power trains. In addition, several companies in the US and Europe are developing flywheel-based hybrid buses and trains. There is a prototype bus operating in Holland, according to the article. Flywheels are also being used to stabilize the output of solar, wind and other energy sources, reducing the risk of blackouts. “Consumers are just beginning to get used to hybrid cars. A new generation of flywheels might bring the hybrid concept to systems ranging from trains to the nation’s entire electric grid.”

    [Science News is a weekly magazine summarizing the latest in science news in language high school senior can understand. It is an excellent way to stay caught up on major scientific developments. Go to]

  30. richard schumacher

    The world’s energy problem at the end of this century cannot be solved by conservation. Nine billion people at a Western standard of living even with European-style efficiency will need about four times as much energy as the world uses now. Environmental responsibility and economic justice require that we replace all fossil fuels with nuclear, hydro, wind, and Solar.

    On the bright side, we can use all the carbon-neutral power we want; we just have to pay for it. I buy 100% wind power and run my air conditioner whenever I like, guilt-free.

  31. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

    Re: the Democrats and energy policy. I don’t know how things will turn out, obviously, but here’s Sen. Tester from Montana, a coal state, quoted in the Caspar Wyoming Star-Tribune:
    “Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana is now saying coal should not expect a free ride. Tester said in a recent interview that any coal-to-liquids plant supported by federal dollars must include technology to capture and store carbon. The plants are projected to cost billions of dollars, making federal backing key to moving forward.
    “They can do it with private backing if they want. But if they want public dollars, they have to do carbon capture and sequestration. That has to be part of the conversation,” Tester said.”
    So I think the Democrats get it, at least intellectually. But there’s no question: nothing good is going to happen on energy policy unless we keep the pressure up- don’t be cynical, just keep making the phone calls. Try for two every day- that’s only a few minutes.

  32. Matt

    The elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is an earth that is overpopulated.
    Take some time to watch this lecture by Dr. Albert Bartlett: