Liquefied Coal and Barack Obama

29 May 2007

Given that carbon dioxide emissions have been accelerating in recent years beyond even the IPCC AR4's highest projections, and that 2007 is so far the hottest year on record, it's no wonder that the Senate has been considering proposals to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions. But recently, Dick Gephart (D-MO) and Barack Obama (D-IL) have been pushing legislation to subsidize coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuel as a replacement for gasoline. This is puzzling since CTL fuel actually contributes more in the way of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the LA Times:
"A new study has concluded that turning coal into liquid fuel yields 125% more carbon dioxide than producing diesel fuel and 66% more than gasoline. If the carbon dioxide is captured and permanently stored, liquid coal emits 20% more greenhouse gas than diesel but 11% less than conventional gasoline, according to the study to be released next week by Argonne National Laboratory, a research arm of the Energy Department."

Basically, it produces 66% more carbon dioxide than conventional gasoline. Hypothetically, if the emissions are successfully sequestered (a technology that seems expensive and uncertain at this point), then the emissions are only slightly better than what we have right now. Here's a chart from the NY Times, comparing CTL fuel to the other available options:

So are Obama and Gephart at least conditioning their subsidization of CTL on proper sequestration? Nope.

"The bill does not require that the fuel be produced without increasing greenhouse gas emissions, though it does offer tax incentives to encourage the use of technology that captures carbon dioxide."
So basically, they're using government money to encourage a fuel technology that will increase carbon dioxide emissions by 66% unless the participating coal companies voluntarily adopt an expensive and unproven technology out of the goodness of their hearts.

EDIT: As far as the proposals themselves go, the NY Times says that "the scale of proposed subsidies for coal could exceed those for any alternative fuel, including corn-based ethanol," including:
  • loan guarantees for six to 10 major coal-to-liquid plants, each likely to cost at least $3 billion
  • a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of coal-based fuel sold through 2020
  • automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel
  • permission for the Air Force to sign 25-year contracts for almost a billion gallons a year of coal-based jet fuel

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