Debate Mounts Over Coal-to-Liquid Technology

By Matt Purple | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - A small group of environmental activists assembled on the Capitol lawn Thursday to protest a growing congressional push for a new technology that turns solid coal into liquid fuel.

Denouncing coal power as a factor in global warming, activists pressed their case for clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

"The purpose of this event is to say no to liquefying coal for any purposes of energy use," Shadia Wood of the Energy Action Coalition told Cybercast News Service . "It is toxic, it is dirty, and it is killing people."

Organizers claimed in a press release that the protest would include the dumping of one ton of coal on the Capitol lawn, but it didn't happen. Instead, of the few protestors who showed up, several carried buckets of coal, and none was dumped on federal property.

The activists' outrage was sparked by news that top Democrats on Capitol Hill are discussing a proposal to provide $10 billion dollars in loans for plants that convert coal to a cleaner liquid fuel. (The measure would be included in the energy package currently being debated on Capitol Hill.)

"A group of us is working on it," Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said. Dorgan's home state is rich in coal and has been at the forefront of developing coal-to-liquid technology.

Protestors stressed that by supporting coal technologies, lawmakers are giving in to special interests and ignoring the wishes of the American people.

"It's a moral issue," Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus told Cybercast News Service . "And sometimes the state can veer away [from moral good] based on political interests."

"And so we come here to say [to the politicians]: think more of the long term. Think more of the earth," Yearwood added.

Activists argue that coal-to-liquid technology is too expensive. They cited the National Coal Council, which estimated that such programs would cost $211 billion over the next twenty years to replace just ten percent of gasoline usage. They also contend that coal-to-liquid is less environmentally friendly that other carbon-free energy sources such as wind and solar power.

"We will not grow wheat in Kansas in fifteen years if we don't dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions right now," Mike Tidwell, director of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council and one of the speakers at the rally, told Cybercast News Service . "This is a right here, right now problem that needs a right here, right now solution."

Supporters of the technology point to the fact that many harmful pollutants - including sulfur, ash, and mercury - can be eliminated from coal during the liquefaction process.

But Tidwell stressed that liquefied coal still would emit substantial quantities of carbon dioxide. He conceded that ways have been found to sequester carbon from liquefied coal, but he also questioned the feasibility of the sequestering process.

"It's a very expensive and unproven technology," he said.

Corey Henry, spokesman for the Coal-To-Liquids Coalition, told Cybercast News Service that Tidwell's assessment of the carbon sequestering process was "wrong." He explained that all coal-to-liquid plants built in the United States would remove the carbon and ship it to oil fields where it would be pumped underground.

"This pumping would push oil up out of rocks that you otherwise couldn't get and the carbon would take the place of oil in the rocks," he said.

Henry said the biggest advantage to coal-to-liquid energy was the relief it would provide to America's dependence on foreign oil sources. "America right now has about 240 years of coal," he said. "That number would change somewhat if you were converting the coal into liquid, but not significantly."

"You're talking about a fuel that can provide generations of Americans with domestically sourced energy," he added.

Mike Tidwell had a more sweeping solution in mind.

"If you really want energy security, if you really want to fight global warming, build cars that get 50 miles per gallon," he said. "It's that simple," he added.

Auto manufactuers, however, have argued that if it really were that simple to boost gas mileage in cars, they'd be doing it already.

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