Sustainable Development The Role of Coal

The debate over the future of America's energy policy is heating up, and it is liable to reach temperatures of near-combustion amidst the politics of this explosive election season. One industry that has long been a pillar of the American energy establishment is coal, and the case of coal is particularly compelling for two reasons. The first is that massive reserves in western US states such as Montana and Wyoming allow a viable pathway to improved energy independence from unstable and often unsavory oil-producing states. Montana's reserves alone stand at a staggering 120 billion recoverable tons; at 2006 levels of consumption, this would be enough to meet in totality the coal needs of mighty China for nearly half a century. The negative, of course, is that coal-fired power plants are among the most heinous emitters of greenhouse gases.

This clashing of interests has given rise to vocal confrontations in Washington and across the country regarding the role that coal will play in America's future. The Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other influential congressional figures such as Representative Henry Waxman have exhibited their outright opposition to the furthering of any coal interests, arguing that carbon costs are too great and that attention is better focused on renewables such as wind, geothermal and solar power. Aware of the mounting pressure, coal mining giants that reap billions in profits are seeking uses of the fuel that will belch less carbon into the atmosphere. But for Reid and others, the term "clean coal" will only ever be an oxymoron. Montana's Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer has built a largely deserved reputation as a champion of environmental causes. However his state is split between conservationist elements and a more traditional core composed of ranchers and agriculturalists and of course the interests of "big coal" to which he is not insignificantly beholden.

As he straddles this divide, he is uniquely positioned to make a push for better uses of coal. "There is no choice but to go forward with coal," he said recently. "The question is, how are we going to move forward and develop the technology that will make coal clean?" Central to Schweitzer's proposal is the implementation of large-scale coal gasification and coal-to-liquids (CTL) projects. Like other alternative energy initiatives such as biofuels, their ultimate effectiveness and desirability remain uncertain. But given America's energy exigencies, and the fact that in the foreseeable future coal power will continue to play a large role, it seems to be worthy of our attention.

The process of coal gasification disintegrates coal into its component parts by subjecting it to very high temperatures and applying pressure using steam and oxygen. The resulting synthesis gas or "syngas" is mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. It is much easier to remove pollutants such as mercury and sulfur from the syngas, allowing it to burn more cleanly. In addition, once the snygas has been cleaned it is similar to natural gas, which allows it to be burned in more efficient gas turbines. The gas can be further reconstituted into a liquid fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch process, and can then be used directly as a heating oil or indeed to power vehicles.

The prospect is not without unequivocal drawbacks. First of all, it would entail the continuation of coal mining, and the extraction in itself can be an abominable practice. Secondly, although it allows for a significant reduction of carbon dioxide from the levels emitted by dirty coal-fired plants, it still releases sizeable amounts.

The releases are relatively easier to capture, but the prevalent idea of "sequestration"—storing the carbon dioxide underground—remains problematic. Finally, in the infantile stages, the costs of "integrated gasification combined-cycle" (IGCC) plants to generate electricity remain very high. However as with all new and untested technologies, these costs could be expected to diminish if the plants become widespread.

Because of the coal mining that it would continue to necessitate, and because it allows only for a reduction of CO2 levels and not their elimination, coal gasification cannot be considered a solution in the absolute sense. And there of course is the lingering external question of energy inputs for the gasification process. But it is when one adopts a more pragmatic view that the light of its desirability perhaps begins to shine through. Coal mining must be rigorously regulated. Early start-ups of IGCC plants will require hefty subsidies and other incentives.

But if costs begin to fall, coal gasification and CTL technologies could prove vital catalysts for energy independence and cleaner fuels. Copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Lafleche.

Daniel Lafleche is the co-founder of Alternative Channel, a website dedicated to giving non-profit organizations concerned with issues of sustainable development, environmentalism, and humanitarian issues an online forum for their video content. You can learn more at http://www.alternativechannel.tv

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