Posted by & filed under Biodiversity, Biofuels, Consumerism, Economics, Global Warming/Climate Change, Peak Oil, Society, Soil Erosion & Contamination, Water Contaminaton & Loss.

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.

12 Responses to “Coal to Liquids – Racing to the Bottom With the Fuel from Hell”

  1. Bernie Edwards

    Nice article Craig, and a poke in the eye for Smuggins Huggins. He is the one who has been hoodwinked by Monbiot showing his true colours and willingness to jump on any short-term bandwagon.

    Reply
  2. Duane Hennon

    “we don’t have an excess of grasshoppers, we have a deficit of grandbirds to feed on them”

    “we don’t have an excess of CO2, we have a deficit of soil to feed on it.”

    If we wish to restore, rather than sustain, vast ecosystems as shown in John Liu’s “Green Gold” video then a lot of CO2 will be needed.

    much of the original carbon from those original landscapes has been lost from the biological carbon cycle into the geologic carbon cycle. Ocean and lake sediments, land fills, sewerage treatment plant discharges, oceanic precipitation of carbonates- limestone and other minerals, and plankton all remove carbon from the quickly cycling biologic.

    the goal, as I see it, is to have a much larger biological carbon cycle, where every living thing has this carbon for a period of time and passes it on to the next.
    Because of past practices, the cycle has been diminished and the number of participants limited.

    using fossil fuels brings the carbon back to the biologic cycle.
    and since its use isn’t going away
    wouldn’t working with, rather than against those who use fossil fuels (which is just about everyone) make sense?

    wouldn’t having a positive message, like in “Green Gold”,
    be more productive?

    “Here is where we are, and we’re going to use the “excess grasshoppers” of our present situation as a solution to get to a better situation.”

    Reply
  3. Bernie Edwards

    Your logic is dangerously flawed, Duane, perhaps deliberately and mischievously so.

    There is no ‘deficit of soil’ to contain the problem carbon being produced by using fossil fuels. That is just twisting the issue and totally misusing a genuine permaculture problem/solution statement. The problem is (and anyone who doesn’t already know this must have their head in the sand) that it is the unnatural removal of fossil fuels from the ground and consequent release of CO2 in their processing that is disturbing the balance of nature’s carbon cycle in a way that is dangerous and causing conditions that are about to set off a spiral of catastrophic reactions, unforeseen when this sort of activity commenced and leaving us at the mercy of events that we are quite unable to control.

    It amazes me that there are still idiots who would advocate continuing on this path to nowhere. I would be very surprised if John Liu or any other straight-thinking person would in any way support that position.

    By the way, now that Rio+20 is (thankfully) over, I wonder if we are going to see John’s video ‘re’-appear on this site?

    Reply
  4. Duane Hennon

    bernie said:

    “There is no ‘deficit of soil’ to contain the problem carbon being produced by using fossil fuels”

    the American plains has lost several feet of soil in the last 150 years, now at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
    the soil in China forms clouds that can be seen from space as they travel over the Pacific ocean.
    Rebuilding these soils will take carbon. should we cut down the Amazon rainforest and use it to rebuild the American plains?
    the main source of replacement carbon to rebuild soils comes from the air, captured by plants through photosynthesis and transferred to the soil creatures who create soil.

    in 800AD much of the world was covered by forest and grassland with plenty of carbon in the soil. the biological carbon cycle was much larger then, and man’s diversion of the carbon to the geologic smaller.

    My point is that fossil fuel is the reality and is going to stay that way whether we like it or not.

    Using the problem as a solution, I thought, was a principle of Permaculture.
    also not treating everyone with a car as the enemy would go far in getting your message across. as those in RIO+20 found out, people will just stop listening to you

    watch the video and then think about it

    Reply
  5. Bernie Edwards

    Duane,
    Even if the arguments raised in the links you provided were correct, which they are plainly not (as I try to show below), the basic point that you are trying to promote ie. that we should continue to use fossil fuels so that we can generate enough CO2 to make more good soil, is absolutely ludicrous.

    I can agree that we need to increase biomass with the aim of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. That is logical and needful. But I find incomprehensible the perverse logic of deliberately increasing CO2 levels as a means of achieving that objective, even though that action will in any case be the most likely course taken as a result of chronic and ongoing human inaction to prevent it. The most recent failure of our world leaders to do anything positive once again at Rio+20 epitomises the case.

    Now, to your ‘greening through CO2′ links.

    Is it possible to green the desert through CO2? Well, many people have always lived and prospered in arid areas and on the edges of deserts, and permaculture pioneers like Geoff Lawton have proved that stuff (perhaps I should say biomass) can be grown in those areas through soil creation processes.

    Is the Sahara greening? Of course not. It is expanding further each year, consuming huge amounts of previously useable arable land and displacing large numbers of people as it moves southwards. The National Geographic article is a fairy tale supported by a very questionable photograph and not much else. It’s only source is an article from Biogeosciences http://www.biogeosciences.net/6/469/2009/bg-6-469-2009.html which has no reference to climate change or CO2 but is a discussion on perceived vegetation levels between satellite observation and modelled results from a simulator to try to explain the difference as a result of human, mainly pastoral, activity in the region. Here is a UN link on desertification to put some perspective on the situation: http://www.un.org/en/events/desertificationday/background.shtml.
    The only greening going on, or not, in the Sahara is a plan, already some years old and yet to really get off the ground if it ever does. The objective is to plant a green wall right across the desert, 15km wide by 7000km long with the objective of halting the southward march of the desert. http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/africas-great-green-wall-hopes-to-stop-the-spreading-sahara-if-it-ever-gets-planted.html. How likely do you think that is to get to completion?

    The Weizmann Institute study suggests that there ‘might’ be a causal link with CO2 and forest growth on the edge of deserts, but there is nothing new there. We have long known that biomass and soil are carbon sinks. It is part of the naturally occurring process of the carbon cycle. Even if there is some genuine expansion of the rate of biomass growth in these cases, that in itself is not an argument for continued fossil fuel use.

    Reply
  6. Duane Hennon

    bernie,
    i am not the enemy.

    “Duane,
    Even if the arguments raised in the links you provided were correct, which they are plainly not (as I try to show below), the basic point that you are trying to promote ie. that we should continue to use fossil fuels so that we can generate enough CO2 to make more good soil, is absolutely ludicrous.”

    I can agree that we need to increase biomass with the aim of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. That is logical and needful. But I find incomprehensible the perverse logic of deliberately increasing CO2 levels as a means of achieving that objective, even though that action will in any case be the most likely course taken as a result of chronic and ongoing human inaction to prevent it.”

    I said we were going to continue to burn fossil fuel not matter what.
    and that much of the biologic carbon from the past is lost. The carbon in the atmosphere is building up because not enough organisms are using it. building up the biologic carbon cycle will not only reduce atmospheric carbon, but improve ecosystems. To restore the Earth will take how much?
    We’re at 400 +/- ppm. Plants stop photosynthesising effectively somewhere below 200 ppm.

    We are going to need energy to build all those earthworks. you’re going to need energy to maintain the the economies in order to have computers, internet, etc to communicate while all this is going on. Also planes, airports,vehicles, so you can travel to Jordan or Australia, or where-ever to give or take PDC courses.
    There is a reason none of these came from a third world country. They lack the infrastructure which takes energy. To do away with energy now would doom everyone.
    Why not see the “silver lining” and use this to get people on board. as I said, “here is where we’re at, we can use this to get to a better place.”

    “The most recent failure of our world leaders to do anything positive once again at Rio+20 epitomises the case.”

    what epitomises Rio+20 is the inability of the participants to deal with reality. Since the world isn’t a classroom, you can’t lecture and bad mouth people and expect them to listen.

    Reply
  7. Bernie Edwards

    Sorry Duane, you really are the enemy. But you are not alone. You have corporates and governments as allies, and I suspect, a fair number of permaculture entrepreneurs also. In fact anyone who sees an opportunity to make a buck out of the situation we have now.

    Your arguments amount to a call for continued economic growth under the present state of affairs, while I am a proponent of moving to a steady state economy of local communities operating at a much reduced level of energy consumption.

    Your reasons are that the way things are now is just going to continue anyway so let’s accept the situation and use it while we can to achieve some good. My reasons are that the way things are now is just going to continue anyway in the short term no matter what we do and in the long term it may result in something far less attractive than my vision of a steady state economy.

    The two views are quite incompatible. I think I can see where you are coming from and it is an honourable but misguided view for changing the world into some sort of permaculture heaven. It just isn’t going to happen. It is actually supporting the continued rape of our planet.

    My view of permaculture is that it is not some save-all crusade to change the world but that the world is at some stage soon going to have to deal with the consequences of its actions, as all complex societies must in the end, and that out of the rubble of those events hopefully build simple locally based steady state societies aided by, among other things, permaculture principles and practices.

    Your ‘dealing with reality’ is a fairly short-term attempt to avoid a train wreck by frantically laying more tracks for the train to run on, oblivious to the fact that the train is gaining speed. My ‘dealing with reality’ says that there is no short-term solution but we are living through a slow-motion train wreck right now and the best we can do is to prepare to come out the other end of the experience by practicing the skills that we will need in the post train wreck world.

    I am not lecturing, just giving my view and putting an opposing case to yours and correcting some misleading information that was presented. I also do not expect you to listen. That is the difference.

    Reply
  8. Duane Hennon

    Sorry Duane, you really are the enemy.

    “I am not lecturing, just giving my view and putting an opposing case to yours and correcting some misleading information that was presented. I also do not expect you to listen. That is the difference.

    IF you watched the “Greening Gold” video you should have noticed Mr Liu saying that “getting the locals to buy-in was necessary for any project to succeed.”

    Getting 1 million people to take 1 step will accomplish more than having a small group go off grid and raise vegetables and chickens.
    and once that first step is taken, the second is a bit easier

    I look at the bigger picture and see where something can be done.

    http://citizenactionmonitor.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/welcome-to-the-age-of-wicked-problems-or-why-we-cant-solve-climate-change/

    we are working on the same problems but from different places
    both are needed

    here is a different but not “anti” view of the problem.
    the pdf should be required reading for permies

    http://www.constructal.org/index.html
    http://www.constructal.org/en/art/Why_we_want_power_-_Economics_is_physics.pdf

    Reply
  9. Joe Peschi

    It is refreshing to see someone acknowledge the power of the market, which even though author did not specify, will overide any flimsy atempt at trying to solve this through “people power” alone. In other words all of us collectively doing what is right voluntarily, even though not doing so is personally beneficial.
    So yes, the market will always push for the lowest cost solution, and it will likely include coal to liquids as the article says. What to do about it? I’m sorry to say but there are currently no mainstream viable proposals, since most cannot get past the barrier of going at the problem by encouraging voluntary self-sacrifice at individual community, corporate or national level. I recomend people read “Sustainable Trade” by Zoltan Ban. It is a proposal that encourages the use of standardized trade tarifs meant to act as a mechanism to encourage more sustainable policies at national level, by linking tariffs on exports to the environmental footprint in each country per unit of gdp produced.

    Reply

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