Tuesday, July 15, 2008

coal-to-liquids, or forests to fuel?

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.

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."
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.

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


Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

If you're interested, I know where you can buy a good horse for transportation and tallow to make candles for lighting....

Oh, we also have jobs for the former coal miners....maybe even for those who depend upon them (coal miners) for a living....

Sue said...

Chris, the more coal we mine the fewer miners we employ. Twenty years ago, Letcher county mines shipped half has much coal, but employed three times the miners. Diminishing returns for those of us who live here. But then you folks who live away from the mountains you can ride your coal fueled cars and not worry about the cracks in your house's foundation, or the broken windows, or the dead children (from runaway boulders), or the miners who gave up their health to insure a future for themselves and their children only to have their neighborhoods no longer habitable.

At the rate we're going we're destroying the places that people live, so there won't be anyone living here who will need the horses, or work the remaining coal mines.

Sue said...

Actually, Chris, I was thinking more in the lines of hundreds of windmills on the mountains ridgelines (something that doesn't displace forest like mining), and photovoltic film on everyone's roof, and electric trolley buses (conventionally tired to run on existing roads) to provide public transportation with shared plug in hybrids and electric cars for the occasional trip that can't be accomodated by the public transportation.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

NIMBY -- Not in my back yard. That's what everyone says. OK, so where does our energy come from???

Sue said...

Chris, see my other comment about where, and see my new post about Pickens Plan. There's lots of other "where"s from which we can get energy, and lots of ways that we can conserve, and lots of ways that we can reorganize the way we live without any loss of quality of life (and often a lot of improvement in health and well-being).

Just try for a minute to put aside your automatic reaction. I am NOT talking about NIMBY. I know you don't believe for a second in an anthropogenic role global warming (and I'm not sure you believe in warming at all). But I believe with every breath in my body and all my soul that you are wrong.

Based on all the science I have read, all the debates and discussions I have listened to, all the statistics that I have analyzed, I conclude that the best evidence is that global warming is very real, it is very much a threat, and that human activity, especially the burning of coal (and other fossil fuels) is a significant contributor to that warming. I don't "believe" this as blind faith; every single day, I read the newest research, and I look for contrary evidence. I test the hypothesis of anthropogenic warming against every new study, every new discussion of the evidence that it out there. I read both sides, I study their data. And then I reaffirm each day, that the preponderence of evidence is on the side of trouble.

My largest objection to coal has nothing to do with my back yard it has to do with the entire earth, with poor people in Africa, and millions of folks living on below sea level in Bangladesh, and southern Florida, and millions of folks who live every where else but where I do. In fact, folks here in the mountains have everything to gain from a warmer earth and very little, economically, to lose from it.

If I were operating out of my own pocket book or economic interests I would be promoting coal consumption. Coal companies contribute to funding my college. Training for coal miners provides bodies to up our student count that determines our funding. Coal employment underwrites the economy in our region. If I was going to be selfish rather than altruistic I'd be pushing coal. But I'm not because I can see beyond my own personal interests to what I truly believe is good for human society, every where and for generations in the future. I have no children, no grandchildren, my brothers have no children, my best friends have no children. So I'm not in this because of any personal stake in the future immediate or otherwise. My interest in the future is purely altruistic. I have absolutely nothing to gain from being right about global warming, and actually quite a lot to gain if I'm wrong. I would genuinely like to be wrong, but I can't ignore the scientific evidence.

The scientific evidence has convinced me that it doesn't much matter that you (or others) believe that our economy is better off with private autos burning oil, and electric plants burning coal, and that you are willing to pay any cost to perpetuate the existing system -- whether it is to destroy ANWAR and all our coast lines, and let soldiers die in oil nation after oil nation. It doesn't matter, because in the end, the oil will be gone and the earth will have warmed, and then people will still have to figure out a way to live in a world that's fallen back into medieval chaos. Unless of course, we begin to make changes NOW to make a smoother transition to a better way of life.

Anonymous said...

Liquid coal made with carbon sequestration can be as clean or cleaner than conventional oil fuels. Carbon sequestration has already been proven at Kinder Morgan in TX where over 1 billion cu ft of co2 is captured daily and pumped underground for permanent storage. We only have 50 years max left on the oil supply according to the DOE experts - less according to the worlds leading geophysicists. There will be 9 billion mouths to feed, and mass economic chaos will ensue long before that when the shortages hit. We need to exercise every available option to prolong the world’s survival. Ethanol can only supply 10%. Electric for everything is not feasible. Biodiesel is similar to ethanol. Both will add to food shortages. There is a 200 year coal supply that can take up the slack while sources like hydro phonic algae are developed. Liquid coal can be made with recycled water, and the land can be redeveloped into farms, forests, and lakes with minimal environmental damage – I have seen the photos of redeveloped coalmines.

Why the Price of Peak Oil is Famine

Sue said...

Well I've seen more than photos - I live with strip-mines every day. The way strip-mines are "redeveloped" does nothing at all to offset loss of the complex ecosystem of forest, nor the watershed functions that forest provides on steep mountainsides.

Pat Jenkins said...

sue does not any source of energy we harness cause and adverse effect in some way to the environment? now i am not saying demolish all living things in the name of energy. but the environment is going to "change" no matter, because news flash, we need the earth to survive!!!!