Coal to Liquids – Racing to the Bottom With the Fuel from Hell

I thought I’d add to George Monbiot’s recent post highlighting moves to persevere with fossil fuels by sharing a little piece on how feeding our oil addiction is taking us to ever-dirtier lows.

Although momentum is building in the fight against coal-fired power plants, it’s not necessarily the end of the story for the sooty black substance. Powerful coal companies don’t go quietly, and not a few are trying to find new ways to appear palatable. Coal-to-liquids technologies, that seek to fill the void left by our peaking oil supplies, are a case in point.

But just as climbing a ladder to harvest cherries off the top of the tree is more dangerous than simply reaching out for the easy-to-retrieve pickings from low-hanging branches, the more energy-intensive process of converting coal into a liquid fuel comes with significant, even dangerous, downsides.

The CO2 emissions from running a vehicle from coal-to-liquids, for example, is almost double that of a vehicle on regular oil-based petrol.

The total emissions rate for oil and gas fuels is about 27 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon, counting both production and use, while the estimated total emissions from coal-derived fuel is more like 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon — nearly twice as much. — Move America Beyond Oil

If this ‘technology’ were ever to make substantial headway, it would mean more mining and an even greater reliance on the yet unproved band-aid concept of Carbon Sequestration and Storage (CCS). In fact, it would exacerbate the greatest issue with CCS — the scale at which it needs to be applied:

The hurdles to implementation [of CCS] are largely ones of integration at scale. Current possible scenarios of climate change predict that by 2030, the level of CO2 to be mitigated could be 30 billion tons per year or more. Sequestering [only] 5 billion tons of CO2 each year would entail pumping volumes close to 100 million barrels per day of supercritical CO2 into secure geological formations. — Facing the Hard Truths About Energy , National Petroleum Council, Chapter Three, page 178

I’d encourage you to read that last bit again: one hundred million barrels of CO2 per day, and that’s just a fraction of the amount that would need to be sequestered….

First developed in oil-deficient Nazi Germany, to help fuel the war machine, coal-to-liquids has since been implemented at scale in only a few places worldwide — notably South Africa and China. South Africa perfected the technology as a response to apartheid-provoked international sanctions, which shrunk access to oil supplies, and today 30-40% of that country’s liquid fuels come from this source, whilst hosting the Sasol coal-to-liquids plant — the world’s biggest single-point emission source for CO2 in the world. China is said to be on track to increase its coal-to-liquids capacity twenty-fold between 2010 and 2020. Other nations are starting their own moves in this direction (see here here, here, here and here, for example).

I know I’m stating the obvious when I say this — but I say it anyway, as some still seem to miss this important point — but most of the so-called ‘renewable’ technologies being embraced to take us into a ‘greener’ future actually produce electricity, not liquid fuels. Solar, wind, tidal power, etc., will not run our transport systems — at least not in their present state. There are more than one billion(!) fossil-fuel dependent cars in the world today, and who knows how many trucks, planes, ships, generators, etc., etc. Their existence has lead us to shape our cities, our distribution systems, our agriculture and our lifestyles around them.

From a the-economy-must-come-first, forget-the-consequences perspective, it’s natural for coal-to-liquids to move in as a replacement for increasingly difficult-to-retrieve supplies of crude. Indeed, what, realistically, is the alternative? Well, if we want to maintain a similar vehicular infrastructure, then there is the option to switch to electric cars, charged by solar, for example. This would necessitate both a phase-out of fossil fuel powered cars, and a significant overhaul of current transport infrastructure. The energy cost for such a transition would be immense. Along with needing to churn out tens of millions of new cars is the requirement for tens of millions of new batteries and solar panels, the overhauling of service station facilities, and the creation of home- and work-based charging stations worldwide. Even if all this were somehow possible, you won’t see it happen for trucks, ships and planes, which all require significant energy density, and it won’t be a viable option for the many areas of the world that don’t get sufficiently reliable levels of sunshine.

The ‘invisible hand’ of the market tends to follow the path of least resistance — normally that’s the path of least cost. It is far more likely that coal plants will switch from supplying sooty lumps to producing its even uglier, liquidy counterpart than society is to turn itself upside-down — to re-invent itself — at impossibly great expense, during what is likely to be a never-ending recession.

This is where ‘democracy’ has failed us. Time and time again over the last century sensible folk have urged investment in low-carbon rail networks, for example. But these proposals have always been knocked down by oil- and car-industry lobbying and this resistance has always been supported by ‘the voting majority’ — the short-term-infatuated, profit-centric populace who always recoil at any moves to tax them to pay up front for long term infrastructure investment.

Such rail systems, if rolled out in tandem with the development of resilient, holistically managed agricultural communities, could have placed us on a better platform for survival long before now. But we’ve taken the path of least resistance (the path of least immediate cost), favouring instead a far greater delayed cost — acute social and environmental instability.

This is exactly the precipice upon which we now teeter.

And, today, even if we did decide to find a way to re-invent our transport infrastructure, the massive overhaul required would be fueled by, you guessed it, fossil fuels.

Coal-to-liquids is only one of several drastic, but economically ‘natural’, reactions to our present predicament. Similar can be said for other dirty, liquid-fuel sources — like coal seam gas ‘fracking’, tar sands, biofuels and shale oil. They all come at increased cost in environmental and public health, over and above the already unattractive picture for standard fossil fuels.

If people’s awareness about these issues do not become heightened to the point of alarm and subsequent action — society-wide — you can be sure that these industries will continue, one way or another, to try to meet our ever-higher demands for energy — and they’ll do it come hell or high water.

Relocalised communities anyone??

If an economic system could have its own ‘mind’, I think it could be likened to that of a heroin addict. The mind’s ethical compass spins ever more erratically as its desperation intensifies. It will do whatever it can to appease its craving for a short-term ‘fix’. We are both the addicts, and the collateral damage.