Back in January, when Nancy Pelosi formed a House committee to focuson climate change, she dubbed it the Select Committee on EnergyIndependence and Global Warming. The phrasing itself wasnoteworthy. When environmentalists talk about energy policy, theyusually focus, loudly and clearly, on global warming. ManyDemocrats, however, prefer to frame the discussion in terms of"energy security." And who can blame them? Even people who shrug atthe thought of rising temperatures agree that the country shouldwean itself off foreign oil. It's a hugely popular idea. And, sincemany of the policies that would free the United States from theclutches of opec would also curb carbon emissions, who wouldbegrudge the Democrats this bit of clever framing?
But the strategy comes with a downside: The coal industry has latelylatched on to the "energy security" craze by billing itself as theanswer to our oil- dependency woes. Specifically, Big Coal isteaming up with an array of Republicans and Democrats to toutliquefied coal as a substitute for gasoline in U.S. vehicles. Thecountry is sitting on vast coal reserves, they reason, so why notuse those instead of tossing money at the House of Saud? There'sjust one catch: Liquefied coal would do little to reduce carbonemissions and, in all likelihood, would make things worse.Nevertheless, the idea continues to gain currency in Congress, inpart because "energy security" is a sales pitch few politicians canresist.
The idea of using coal as a liquid fuel has been around ever sincetwo German scientists in the 1920s discovered the process used tocreate it. Liquefied coal powered the Nazi military during WorldWar II, and, in the '70s, Jimmy Carter asked Congress to look intocoal-to-liquid plants as a way to counter high oil prices. (Sixyears and billions of dollars in subsidies later, the program wasfinally killed.) Recently, the Pentagon has revived the idea in abig way, with the Air Force looking to have its entire fleet capableof running on liquefied coal by 2010. No one, after all, worriesmore about energy security than the U.S. military, among thebiggest gas-guzzling entities on the planet.
Enter the coal industry, which has fallen on hard times.Environmentalists managed to halt the construction of eight newcoal plants in Texas earlier this year, while both Al Gore andnasa's James Hansen have called for a moratorium on "dirty" coalplants. Moreover, according to one MIT analysis, if Congress passesa strong emissions-reduction bill to deal with climate change, coalproduction could decline sharply in the coming years. As a result,investors have been increasingly wary of financing new coal-relatedprojects.
Liquefied coal could be just the life raft Big Coal needs. In lateMarch--to great fanfare on Capitol Hill--the industry unveiled theCoal-to-Liquids Coalition, which will push for federal subsidiesfor the construction of liquid- coal plants (dozens are beingplanned) as well as mandates for the fuel itself. The coalition'smembers include the National Mining Association, the UnitedMineworkers of America, and the afl-cio's Industrial UnionCouncil--groups that carry a great deal of influence on both sidesof the aisle.
Unfortunately for them, a recent analysis by the Energy Departmentfound that coal-to-liquid fuel could generate roughly twice thecarbon emissions that regular gasoline does. Coal backers counterthat, if the carbon released during liquefication could be capturedand permanently stored underground, the fuel would be comparable incarbon impact to gasoline--that is, the status quo. But thetechnology for storing carbon underground remains unproved, and,even if it works, cost pressures may prevent it from being adoptedon a large scale, since it could make plants more expensive tobuild and operate. No wonder, then, that recent coal-to-liquidproposals in Congress merely say that plants need to be capable ofcarbon capture rather than requiring it.
Yet, despite these problems with liquid coal, Democrats are hoppingaboard. Nick Rahall, a West Virginian who heads the House NaturalResources Committee, is a major proponent of liquefied coal,calling it the key to energy independence. Another big Democraticsupporter is Virginia's Rick Boucher, who chairs the energysubcommittee that will help craft global-warming legislation. (InMarch, the day before Gore spoke on Capitol Hill, the coal industryheld a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser for Boucher.) In the Senate,Barack Obama has co- sponsored the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel PromotionAct of 2007. Playing on the much- beloved energy-security theme,Obama has noted that liquefied coal is "crucial . .. to reduce ourdependence on foreign oil." To his credit, Obama has insisted thathe will only support the technology if it doesn't lead to anincrease in carbon emissions, and he has pushed a rule that couldmake "dirty" liquid-coal plants unfeasible down the road. But thatinitiative is unlikely to pass any time soon. "This might be toofar ahead of the Senate," says one staffer.
For their part, Republicans seem to have few qualms about coal. In alittle- noticed shift, President Bush has started talking aboutmandates for "alternative" as well as "renewable" fuel to replacegasoline--a sign that he's willing to back liquefied coal.Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural ResourcesCommittee recently tried to amend an energy package to require that21 billion gallons of coal-based fuel be used annually by 2022,and, while the gambit was temporarily beaten back, they may stillget their way once the bill goes to the Senate floor.
Ironically, for all the hype, liquefied coal is hardly the cheapestor easiest way to achieve energy security. According to theNational Coal Council, an advisory board to the Department ofEnergy filled with coal executives, a tremendous coal-to-liquidpush--involving $211 billion in investments over the next 20 yearsand a 40 percent increase in mining--would allow the United Statesto replace just 10 percent of its oil supply. By contrast, usingthat coal to generate electricity for plug-in hybrids woulddisplace twice the oil and emit a fraction of the carbon.
Still, the Coal-to-Liquids Coalition insists that liquid coal is"among the most practical, promising answers to greater energysecurity." And, so long as official Washington continues to treatthis dubious assertion as fact, Democrats who prefer to talk aboutenergy independence first and global warming second will be playingright into Big Coal's hands.