The Lexington Herald-Leader today reported that a site has been chosen in Pike County, Kentucky, for a $4 billion coal-to-liquid plant. The announcement came as the result of a $850,000 study by Pikeville-based Summit Engineering, paid for by the Kentucky Department of Energy and the Appalachian Regional Commission (tax money).
The proposed facility is slated to produce 50,000 barrels of liquid coal a day. The county would use federal and state grant money (tax money) to put the basic infrastructure in place, including water and sewer, and the company chosen to operate the facility would pay for the rest. Pike County officials have already received several proposals from interested companies.
Coal-to-liquid conversion uses a process that heats coal to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and mixes it with water to produce a gas, and then converts the gas into diesel fuel. Roger Ford, director of energy and technology for Pike County, estimates that the direct operating costs (raw materials, labor, energy, ordinary overhead) of transforming coal to liquid at the Pike County facility would be about $61 a barrel.
The article goes on to say that those who oppose the project are concerned:
"that liquid coal could contribute to global warming, citing researchers who say the process produces nearly twice the greenhouse gases that gasoline does, pumping carbon dioxide into the air — both when coal is turned into liquid, and when that liquid is burned in vehicles.As someone who sees, every single day, the devastating effects of current strip-mining in the region, I also have concerns about how increasing demand for coal would affect not only this region, but all urban areas down stream (in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia), that depend upon rivers for their urban water supply.
They also fear coal-to-liquid plants would result in more strip mining and mountaintop removal, devastating surrounding environments. If liquid coal were to account for a 10 percent displacement of current oil use, coal mining would have to increase by 43 percent, some researchers have predicted."
Strip-mining is not accomplished without the removal of forests. Not just the removal of trees, but the removal of complex, interconnected, dynamic ecosystems called forests; forests that serve a whole host of essential functions, both locally, regionally, and through the entire biosphere. Locally there is the loss of habitat for everything from insects to elk and black bear. Community leaders in eastern Kentucky keep talking about making the region a recreation and tourist destination, and have participated in expensive programs to re-introduce elk to the region, and promote hunting, only to turn around and encourage economic activities that destroy the regions scenic, hunting and recreational resources.
Locally there is the increasing threat of flash flooding. Locally and regionally there is the loss of forest sink properties that help clear the air of particulate pollution (not to mention absorb CO2): forests also contribute to atmospheric moisture through plant aspiration, thus maintaining normal rainfall patterns and avoiding both drought and cloudburst. Regionally forest help regulate the flow of water in streams and rivers, allowing for longer, higher sustained flows necessary for a reliable urban water source.
I also have to wonder about how knowledgeable Pike County's decision-makers really are when it comes to issues that could affect the atmospheric chemistry, given the ignorance evidenced in a statement by Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford. Rutherford said "Our goal is to not put anything out in the ozone."
Photo: Mountaintop removal strip mine in Letcher County, KY; Copyright by Sue Greer-Pitt, June 2008