Turning Coal to Fuel is Costly to Environment

coal smoke While businesses and governments begin to invest in biofuels and unconventional petroleum sources such as oil sands, a more traditional source of energy—coal—is also receiving international attention as an oil replacement, reports the New York Times. Rising oil prices have made the expensive technological process of turning coal into liquid fuel for cars, homes, and factories more economically attractive. Yet producing diesel fuel from coal emits nearly twice as much carbon as crude oil-to-diesel production, and 15 times as much as biodiesel production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Investment in coal-to-liquids (CTL) research and production is ramping up worldwide reports the New York Times. In June, Colorado-based Rentech, Inc. purchased a plant in Illinois that for years has been used to turn natural gas into fertilizer, but will be adjusted to convert coal to diesel fuel. The South African company Sasol, which has decades of experience producing CTL fuel, has teamed up with a Chinese partner to conduct a feasibility study of CTL projects in western China. And last year, two energy companies collaborated to develop a CTL plant in Queensland, Australia.

Coal mining can lead to environmental problems such as erosion, biodiversity loss, and groundwater pollution. Moreover, many CTL ventures do not have plans in place for reducing the carbon generated in the conversion process, adding to concerns about the fuel’s contribution to climate change. According to the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs 2005 report, the rate of global temperature increase since 1976 has been three times that for the century as a whole, and the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990. In 2004, nearly three times as much carbon was released into the atmosphere than in 1960.

If CTL producers fail to capture the carbon generated in the conversion process, the global warming impact of driving one mile (approximately 1.6 kilometers) on CTL fuel doubles, according to the New York Times. Hunt Ramsbottom, the chairman of Rentech, Inc., recognizes that the extra carbon outputs of the CTL process are an issue and acknowledges that “carbon sequestration is on everybody’s mind.” But for companies operating in countries that do not place a limit on carbon emissions, there is little incentive to invest in the costly process.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.