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Media: Cheap Gas From Coal Is Bad News

This piece from Wired magazine is now a couple of days old, but given the latest from the Obama White House the attitude it expresses is all the more relevant:

Bad News: Scientists Make Cheap Gas From Coal

By Alexis Madrigal March 26, 2009

Electric cars have been getting a lot of buzz lately, but a more immediately viable transportation fuel of the future could be liquid derived from coal. Scientists have devised a new way to transform coal into gas for your car using far less energy than the current process. The advance makes scaling up the environmentally unfriendly fuel more economical than greener alternatives.

If oil prices rise again, adoption of the new coal-to-liquid technology, reported this week in Science,  could undercut adoption of electric vehicles or next-generation biofuels. And that’s bad news for the fight against climate change.

The new process could cut the energy cost of producing the fuel by 20 percent just by rejiggering the intermediate chemical steps, said co-author Ben Glasser of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. But coal-derived fuel could produce as much as twice as much CO2 as traditional petroleum fuels and at best will emit at least as much of the greenhouse gas.

"The bottom line is that there’s one fatal flaw in their proposed process from a climate protection standpoint," Pushker Karecha of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies wrote in an e-mail to Wired.com. "It would allow liquid fuel CO2 emissions to continue increasing indefinitely."

The race for alternative fuels kicked into high gear last year, with the price of oil reaching $150 a barrel before plummeting down below $40 this year. Still, though experts disagree on the specifics of timing, it’s clear that conventional oil sources will eventually run out. The list of contenders to replace oil is long and diverse. Alternative fuels could include next-gen ethanol, algal biofuel, hydrogen and natural gas, or cars could go largely electric.

But the problem with all the new fuels is that they have to scale up — and that’s harder than it sounds. Plus, many fear that biofuels could cause massive, negative land-use changes.

The process of cooking coal into liquid fuel, on the other hand, has already proven itself on a massive scale. Take coal, add some water, cook it, and you’ve got a liquid fuel for your car. The hydrogen in the water bonds to the carbon and voila: hydrocarbons, such as octane. It’s the very fact that coal-to-liquids could work that make them such a scary idea for people devoted to fighting climate change.

The Nazis used the so-called Fisher-Tropsch process to provide up to half of their transportation fuel needs during World War II. Later, South Africa began a major coal-to-liquids program during the Apartheid era and now maintain the world’s largest CTL industry in the world. The country’s factories produce 160,000 barrels of fuel a day, a little more than all the residents and businesses in Utah use each day.

The traditional process uses carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen as the ingredients in the molecular soup that gets turned into hydrocarbons. The Science process uses just CO2 and hydrogen.

Glasser’s new production method allows them to set a lower limit on the amount of energy that would be needed to transform solid coal into fuel. The very best possible CTL process would require 350 megawatts of input to make 80,000 gallons of fuel; the current process uses more than 1,000 megawatts.

Even with the small efficiency gains, a large, domestic, carbon-intensive source of transportation fuel would throw a wrench into many plans to reduce emissions from vehicles.

"What they’re proposing is simply not allowable if we want to avoid the perils of unconstrained anthropogenic climate change," Karecha said.

But Ben Glasser defended the work as a good intermediate step that would help keep energy flowing even as oil reservoirs dwindle. And he said that the lessons his team learns could be applied to waste streams or renewable sources.

"The long-term solution has to be solar, wind, renewable, but in the meantime I know as a chemical engineer that the easiest thing is to improve on what you’re already doing," Glasser said. "The hope is that what we learn with coal-to-liquids, we can take one step further and start using municipal waste or cooking oil, for example, as the carbon source."

In this case, though, green-tech advocates say that improving a fossil-fuel technology could slow the adoption of other, more sustainable transportation options.

"We are simply running out of time to avoid catastrophic warming, and we no longer have the luxury of grossly misallocating capital and fuels to expensive boondoggles like coal-to-liquid," Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment last year.

The conflict over which energy source replaces oil as it becomes more scarce is likely to be a massively divisive political topic. The winning technology could play a huge role in determining whether the American economy can decarbonize before the effects of catastrophic climate change occur.

"Peak Oil and peak gas and peak coal could really go either way for the climate," Kharecha said at last year’s American Geophysical Union conference. "It all depends on choices for subsequent energy sources."

This article, especially the headline, tells you everything that is wrong with our country and its energy outlook.

Where do these people think electricity comes from? Solar power? Wind mills?

No, it is from coal – and to a far lesser extent – nuclear power.

Of course what we should be doing is building more breeder reactors. But until they are built, synthetic fuels would be a great bridge to the future.

And, as the article notes, we know from history that it works.

Furthermore, we know it would create new industry that would take new works and draw more people into the sciences.

But we can’t have that.

This article was posted by Steve on Monday, March 30th, 2009. Comments are currently closed.

27 Responses to “Media: Cheap Gas From Coal Is Bad News”

  1. jobeth says:

    Oh Lordy, one more war front for Obalmy to attack.

    Of course we all know…he really doesn’t want to “run” this industry either. Just kill it.

    The coal industry was already on his hit list but this might bring it on even quicker.

    All those WV and PA dems that voted for him are about to experience a real awakening.

  2. proreason says:

    Living cheaply and well is immoral……for the peasants that is.

    If the serfs had the affordable comforts free enterprise could supply, what would then separate them from their betters from Harvard, Columbia and the Hood.

    And even worse, they wouldn’t require the strong guiding hand that only their betters can provide.

    • Colonel1961 says:

      “They’re also changing their standard of living the most, going from poor to middle class. To me that’s very precious.”

      Great quote from Freeman Dyson in the NYT Magazine (of all places) regarding the economic impact on poorer nations, vis-a-vis the reduction of cutting ‘greenhouse’ emissions, and the tremendous costs, thereof.

      Of course, the article had to label him a heretic(!) because he doesn’t believe in AGW…

  3. Colonel1961 says:

    ‘…(if) the American economy can decarbonize…’

    Why, of course, I’ll never forget the thrill of economic lectures regarding carbon in myriad economics classes. Screw Fisher, Keynes (please), Smith, et al., it was all about the carbon, baby. I even remember my very first carbon curve. ‘Ceteris paribus, if the demand for carbon remains constant and the supply decreases…’

  4. Right of the People says:

    It’s a liberal,tree-hugger, tofu-muncher, bambi-lover’s nightmare! Affordable energy to run the dreaded automobile that we can make here at home. Whatever will the buttmunch in the White House do? I guess that’s it, Obammy will just have to nationalize the coal industry so he can shut it down.


  5. David says:

    Every time I see people using the NASA title to imply they know what they are talking about tit drives me bonkers. First off there are actually a lot of smart people working at the different NASA institutes who allow their work to speak for itself rather then just using their employer’s name to add merit to their brain farts. Secondly, there are very strict rules about contacting congressmen and senators while being employed by NASA or a contractor working with NASA. So when they use their title to try and change political discussions I think it verges on violating at least the principal behind those rules.

    • GL0120 says:

      NASA – isn’t that the group that put a telescope into orbit and then later had to send astronauts to fix something that should have been checked earlier?
      The same group that has killed 3 in Apollo 1, 7 more in the Challenger disaster, and another 7 in the Columbia fiasco?
      I’d say that they should keep quiet about politics and stick to what they’re good at but I don’t know what that is!

    • David says:

      The space shuttle is easily the most complicated system ever built by humanity. The marvel is that there are not more instances of failures. The problem is the huge cost of failures when they do occur. Secondly, space missions are only a part of what NASA is involved with. While I would concede that the way money is spent on this organization needs to be addressed, far too often people are willing to ignore the vast amount of good that has come from government sponsored research.
      This link is for a kids site sponsored my NASA on spin-off technologies.

  6. oldswimcoach says:

    “Still, though experts disagree on the specifics of timing, it’s clear that conventional oil sources will eventually run out.”

    Well, actually economist would say we will never run out of oil. The simple reason is that as oil supplies (read reserves) dwindle, price increases, and alternative energy sources become economically viable for development. Once developed, they become an a.) Commodity (in the case of a fuel source) and drop in price relative to other costs, or b.) Mass producible (in the case of technological innovation to run alternative fuels) and drop in price relative to all other costs. I believe Thomas Sowell has suggested in his columns that we will never drop below ~50% of known oil reserves because of the above factors.

    “The long-term solution has to be solar, wind, renewable, but in the meantime I know as a chemical engineer that the easiest thing is to improve on what you’re already doing,” Glasser said.

    Come on Mr. Glasser, say it with me “Nuclear Power”… Again… Louder… With feeling… That’s the spirit!

    “The bottom line is that there’s one fatal flaw in their proposed process from a climate protection standpoint,” Pushker Karecha of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies wrote in an e-mail to Wired.com. “It would allow liquid fuel CO2 emissions to continue increasing indefinitely.”

    Um.., no Mr. Karecha, not indefinitely, because that would require an infinite amount of cars, and after six or eight even the most miserly of us would stop collecting them – and we can still only drive one car per person at a time for a maximum of 24 hours per day. Last time I checked that means there’s a LIMIT, so “indefinitely” is a mischaracterization. Had you said “unacceptable level” I would be willing to hear you out, but “indefinitely” is an easy out for left wing feel good fuzzy logic (i.e. Not Real!). Also, Plankton growth and other biologic responses would have to be factored into the scenario – CO2 is still an important part of the ecosystem of the planet. And for the record, water vapor is THE green house gas that has the most direct impact on heat retention in the atmosphere. I think the left should come out firmly against H2O if they are really concerned about global warming,but that would be so implausibly stupid that even morons would be able to see the blatant political agenda behind the global warming hype and strip it of any scientific pretense.

    “We are simply running out of time to avoid catastrophic warming, and we no longer have the luxury of grossly misallocating capital and fuels to expensive boondoggles like coal-to-liquid,” Joe Romm,

    Really Joe? And is this catastrophe next week or the week after? Oh, you meant in several decades to several centuries. Well, just my opinion but a lot can happen during such extended time frames. Maybe we should do something novel on the issue, like say, have objective scientific research on the subject. There is a lot we don’t know about this planet and it’s weather cycles. We’ve been headed for “catastrophic” warming, then cooling, now warming in my life time alone. Makes me think the climate scientists really don’t know what the earth’s climate is truely doing on a long term trend.

  7. heykev says:

    This reminds me of another article that held promise (for me at least). Wired published an article about 2 different ways to mass produce diamonds. I had hoped to buy Mrs. heykev a HUGE diamond she had to carry around in a bushel barrel because the weight and size was impractical on her ring finger for a buck or 2. But alas, like this coal to gas technology, while promising, it won’t go very far.


  8. canary says:

    Obama’s statement on bankrupting the coal, I recall came too late, as Pennsylvania voted day early, or prehaps would not have voted for Obama.. Also, article left out, Since the Air Force has been working on this for quite sometime, I hope it doesn’t bankrupt the Air Force. Listen to audio of Obama making penalites “..it.id.it id id.bib bib ba ba bi. So, if someboy out there wants to bild a coal power plant they can, it’s just that it will bankrupt them.’ Now on audio..


  9. sheehanjihad says:

    Just for the hell of it, and nuclear is the way to go for no carbon emissions at all, but that is a solution, so we wont hear it anytime soon, this is how easy it would be to balance the CO2 scales: plant billions of trees. Yup, something that easy, just plant trees in every bare spot in the country.

    Trees survive by absorbing tons of carbon dioxide and then fart out copious amounts of pure oxygen. The solution is so damn simple….if CO2 is the deadly culprit in global warming, negate it’s effects by putting in place a viable carbon sink to take care of the issue. Carbon credits would be unnecessary, all of the hoopla about ridiculous “alternative energy sources” could be put to rest, and every company that uses fuel just plants a couple of million acres of trees…citizens plant a dozen or so in their yards, states give “tree grants” to anyone who wants them, and the global warming jerks can sit back and shut the eff up because the solution for their useless screeching would be in place, cheaper, totally self sufficient, scenic, a natural air conditioner, wind break, soil retainer, everything those ignorant bastards squawk about would be taken care of in one fell swoop.

    The reason they wont? You cant implement socialist agendas with a viable solution to a hyped up non crisis…..that’s why. No money to be made from solving this “problem” with a workable solution…..hell, fix it, and the crisis goes away! So no, congress and the lickspittle enviro freaks who are making money hand over fist wont consider it. Al Gore would immediately make trees one of the causes of global cooling…and start all over again. Total waste of time….

    • Right of the People says:

      The biggest emitters of CO2 are mammals. Just think, if we could get rid of a lot of mammals, read liberals, we could solve the problem.

      I was reading that compared to other times in history, we are near an all time low in the percentage of CO2 in our atmosphere. This voodoo science has got to go!


    • proreason says:

      “The biggest emitters of CO2 are mammals”

      Don’t laugh. There are global warming nutters who are seriously proposing that 2-legged mammal have to be reduced by over 50%.

    • Liberals Demise says:

      FYI…..when a tree dies, all the CO2 the tree absorbed during its’ life is released in to the atmosphere. My 2cents for what it is worth.

    • Right of the People says:


      As I was saying, we start with the libs and greenies. They’d love to do their part for Momma Earth don’t ya think? It would leave a lot more oxygen for you and I and they wouldn’t be in the way of our SUVs. It’s a win, win.

  10. GetBackJack says:

    While I despise the Republican Party, the Democrats are S.P.E.C.T.R.E. – and their methodology is Fascism writ large.

    If you can craft the right kind of marketing campaign that will make Congressional representatives rich, you can get whatever you want.

    1. Firestone and General Motors crushing public transit so they could get us all into individual vehicles, thereby ensuring fantastic sale for both companies. Congress approved and abetted. That means some of them got seriously rich.

    2. The Ozone Hole. This was a new dawn for ‘social-guilt’ marketing on a mass scale. Dupont and Dow are the perpetrators. Get everyone in America to switch from inexpensive, reliable and effective freon propellant to the more expensive HFc-134a. Billions of dollars in sales that weren’t needed because of social-guilt marketing. Congress aided and abetted and them critters got filthy rich.

    3. CFLs. Beginning to perfect social-guilt marketing. General Electric, Sylvania, etc. Get mass America to feel guilty about using cheap, effective, reliable incandescent bulbs so they’ll switch from a 99 cent product to a $12.95 product. Leviathan new sales in a steady-state market. Brilliant! The product is crap, but that’s not the point. The point is to stampede the herd with social-guilt and profit wildly from it. Congress gets rich by mandating America empty their pocketbook for crappy lighting.

    4. Energy – if you can’t figure out that Obama and most every other Administration is made wealthy by stepping on real, solid, effective renewable cheap energy that would easily displace the BS methods we have today … then you’re just not paying attention.

    S.P.E.C.T.R.E. – Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terror, Revenge and Extortion. I defy you to define the Democratic Party any more succinctly.

  11. Reality Bytes says:

    I got a car mag in my bathroom with an article that compares, gasoline, diesel, coal derived gas, shale oil based, agri based & hydrogen. Which requires the least acerage, water & cost per unit? That’s right, gasoline followed by coal derived gasoline.

    But that’s not the right frequency is it Kenneth (obscure reference to Dan Rather’s NYC city street mugging).

    When I get home, I’ll be sure to get it & I’ll forward it to you all.

  12. Reality Bytes says:

    Speakin’ of Texas. Did u know it is the only state that legally can secede from the US?

    Is this true? Well, if it is, then here’s what happens based on a friend from there:


    Please note that Texas is the only state with a legal right to secede from the Union. (Reference the Texas-American Annexation Treaty of 1848.)

    We Texans love y’all, but we’ll probably have to take action since B. Hussein Obama won the election. We’ll miss you too.

    Here is what can happen:

    #1: Barack Hussein Obama becomes President of the United States, Texas immediately secedes from the Union.

    #2: Ross Perot will become the President of the Republic of Texas.

    So what does Texas have to do to survive as a Republic?

    1. NASA is just south of Houston, Texas. We will control the space industry.

    2. We refine over 85% of the gasoline in the United States.

    3. Defense Industry–we have over 65% of it. The term “Don’t mess with Texas,” will take on a whole new meaning.

    4. Oil – we can supply all the oil that the Republic of Texas will need for the next 300 years. Yankee states? Sorry about that.

    5. Natural Gas – again we have all we need and it’s too bad about those Northern States. John Kerry will have to figure out a way to keep them warm….

    6. Computer Industry – we currently lead the nation in producing computer chips and communications–small companies like Texas Instruments, Dell Computer, EDS, Raytheon, National Semiconductor, Motorola, Intel, AMD, Atmel, Applied Materials, Ball Miconductor, Dallas Semiconductor, Delphi, Nortel, Alcatel, etc, etc. The list goes on and on.

    7. Medical Care – We have the largest research centers for cancer research, the best burn centers and the top trauma units in the world, as well as other large health centers. Dallas and Houston have some of the best hospitals in the United States .

    8. We have enough colleges to keep us going: University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Rice, SMU, University of Houston , Baylor, UNT (University of North Texas), Texas Women’s University, etc. Ivy grows better in the South anyway.

    9. We have a ready supply of workers. We could just open the border when we need some more.

    10. We have essential control of the paper industry, plastics, insurance, etc.

    11. In case of a foreign invasion, we have the Texas National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard. We don’t have an Army, but since everybody down here has at least six rifles and a pile of ammo, we can raise an Army in 24 hours if we need one. If the situation really gets bad, we can always call the Department of Public Safety and ask them to send over Chuck Norris and a couple of Texas Rangers.

    12. We are totally self-sufficient in beef, poultry, hogs, and several types of grain, fruit and vegetables, and let’s not forget seafood from the Gulf. Also, everybody down here knows how to cook them so that they taste good. Don’t need any food.

    This just names a few of the items that will keep the Republic of Texas in good shape. There isn’t a thing out there that we need and don’t have.

    Now to the rest of the United States under President Obama:
    Since you won’t have the refineries to get gas for your cars, only President Obama will be able to drive around in his big 9 mpg SUV. The rest of the United States will have to walk or ride bikes.

    You won’t have any TV as the Space Center in Houston will cut off satellite communications.

    You won’t have any natural gas to heat your homes, but since Mr. Obama has predicted global warming, you will not need the gas as long as you survive the 2000 years it will take to get enough heat from Global Warming.

    Signed, The People of Texas

    You think they’ll have me?!!! RB

    • canary says:

      Oklahoma who had more voters against ooObambo than any other state is smack on top of Texas, and I’m sure Texas would be glad to have them too. Oh. And republican Kansas, smack on top of Oklahoma.

    • pdsand says:

      It is true that there was some clause in the annexation of Texas as a state that said that it had the right to secede if it didn’t like the way things were going. However, all the original colonies wrote the same thing into their ratification of the U.S Constitution, and of course it was understood that states ratifying the constitution and becoming U.S. states were voluntarily joining a union, and of course could voluntarily leave if they wanted to. So of course every state has the right to secede, the only problem seems to be when radical liberals get of the mindset that we are a “nation” that has to hold its territories into the nation. My wife, God bless her, is from PA, and she cannot grasp the concept that the “union” still would have existed in the north, and that a separate confederacy would have existed in the south, but that the United States of America would still have existed had secession been allowed peacefully the first time.

    • jobeth says:

      RB, Ask your friend if will they have an immigration policy for other down home red blooded conservs.

      I’m immigratin’…

    • The Redneck says:

      The problem is that every state has this right.

      And the federal government will suppress this right for every state with military force.

      Love to see it; don’t think it’ll happen.

  13. canary says:

    So, is what Obama said about disiel gas being better coal true?

    Actually, I saw where every state from Texas on up to Canada is mainly republic. Woudln’t ming a little moving around in the country. They can have both sides and we could take the center. Still trade and all, anyone can stay, but this republican democratic thing is b.s. And no one even talks about state governorning anymore. The states are to have the power, not the straw men.

  14. Reality Bytes says:

    Remember, in Texas, they don’t call it fishin’. They call it catchin’. Another great reason if you are so inclined.

  15. The Redneck says:

    The Nazis used the so-called Fisher-Tropsch process to provide up to half of their transportation fuel needs during World War II. Later, South Africa began a major coal-to-liquids program during the Apartheid era and now maintain the world’s largest CTL industry in the world

    I know I’m not the only one who noticed this (seeing as it was bolded), but it seemed so natural for a liberal organization.

    When your argument is completely and utterly indefensible, work on comparing your opponents to Nazis and racists.

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