My apologies. The pun was irresistible.
By now the 110th Congress of these United States has gotten cozy in its new position, probably long enough now to have left a warm spot with its butt in the spinning black leather chair of Washington. As many would expect, a good deal of bills on the floor are energy and fuel-related, something that certainly has not gone unforeseen in the weeks leading up to the changing of the guard in Congress. Whether it is for anyone's good or for the sheer publicity that the Democrats will garner from doing so, we are in for a good deal of these types of bills.
One of the bills that has caused some of the most fervent head-scratching among both parties is one introduced on January 4th calling for funding of coal-to-liquid energy production. This method of fuel production is, as most anyone could tell you, not the cleanest or most efficient; to put things into perspective, a new study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council Climate Center reports that a 35 mpg vehicle running on CTL fuel will produce as much carbon dioxide as a 19 mpg car running on conventional fuel.
Now this is all very depressing for environmentalists, but the subject causing the most confusion in this situation is that the bill was jointly released by Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky and...Sen. Barack Obama, a man who, up until this story broke, had a 100% approval rating among voters in the League of Conservation. The usually climate-concerned Congressman is, needless to say, in hot water with the greeners.
The obviously detrimental effect that this would have on the environment is not the only issue here; for the time being, no known CTL process involves carbon-catching (the primary reason that the process is so dirty), and adding this feature would inevitably jack up the cost of production. As it stands right now, the fuel produced by most CTLs is up to 40% more expensive than conventional fuel processing. Considering the already fluctuating nature of oil prices, this option is right out.
In Obama's defense, he seems to be looking to the long term. Utilization of American coal to produce fuel would cut significantly into our dependence on foreign oil; for those playing the home game, this is a good thing. In addition, the process is not completely new; China has been at it for a few years now. Not only that, but researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have been working on improving the quality of CTL fuel, as well as lowering the cost.
So far, however, there haven't been any major breakthroughs of which to speak, and the bill comes to us after at least four or five years of research. It would, I suppose, be superfluous at this point to observe that this bill would undoubtedly benefit the coal industry in Obama's home state of Illinois.
David Doniger, policy director for the NRDC, sees this largely as a step sideways: "Coal-to-liquid is, in the best-case scenario, no worse for the climate than oil-derived gasoline -- and no better," he says. And while Doniger does support coal gasification as an alternative to coal-burning power plants, he warns that CTL is not at this point a dependable alternative.
Can the purification of CTL fuels be accomplished with "investment and innovation," as Senator Obama phrases it? I'll be monitoring this topic for a while; until I see reports of progress, a skeptic I remain.