The Long Con on Synthetic Fuels


Global warming is well on its way to being a godsend for the coal industry. Lobbyists are busily trying to turn dirty coal into a pleasing green alternative promoted by such Democratic luminaries as Presidential hopeful Barack Obama and former House Speaker turned lobbyist Dick Gephardt. In the background, always ready to help, is veteran infighter former Senate Majority leader West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

Members of Congress are falling all over themselves writing legislation that would pump millions of taxpayer dollars into schemes that promise to turn coal into synthetic gas, develop oil shale, and the most popular at the moment, plans to transform coal into a liquid oil.

If any of this were to happen, huge hunks of the fragile western plains would be transformed into modern mining camps, wrecking fragile ecosystems, exhausting and polluting water supplies. Manufacture of synthetic fuels would subject workers, and the general nearby populations to cancer causing chemicals.

There’s nothing new about synthetic fuels made from coal. In the 19th century street lamps in cities were lit with gas made from coal.In 1909, a key date in the development of this business, Friedrich Bergius,a German scientist,invented a way to produce synthetic gasoline from coal and hydrogen under high pressure by means of a process called hydrogenation. During World War I, Bergius tried without success to adapt his process to large scale production. Carl Bosch, the chairman of the I.G. Farben chemical combine, then in its infancy, thought the Bergius process held great possibilities for the Germany-a country with little or no oil of its own.

Short on fuel, Germany had been strangled during World War I by the British fleet By 1924 Germany was secretely rearming in violation of the Versailles treaty, and the new mechanized army needed a sure source of gasoline.

But turning coal into gasoline would be expensive and Bosch sought to involve Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon’s predecessor), He thought Standard would help foot the bill. Standard’s top officers were invited to Germany to see for themselves what Boschs’s men were doing. They were duly alarmed and came home worried Bosch’s synthetic fuel might overwhelm Standard’s oil wells and cripple the most powerful oil company in the world with.

Bosch, of course, was delighted at the Americans’s fright. Throwing caution to the winds, he plunged ahead, pumping million of dollars into mass production, sure the Americans would have no choice but to join him. His goal was 100,000 tons of coal gasoline a year.

Soon, Standard and IG Farben came to terms. The two companies cut a deal, setting up a cartel through which IG Farben agreed to stay out of the oil business and Standard agreed to keep clear of the chemical business.

Standard, however, soon lost interest–in part because of the depression, and in part because of big new finds in Texas that promised a flood of oil..

Nothing much happened until World War II when Hitler, another keen proponent of liquid coal, got behind synthetic fuel and by 1943 synthetics accounted for half of all German fuel,with the air force being one of the biggest users. The Luftwaffe controlled the skies over Europe during the early stages of the war. One of the liquefaction plants was located in Silesia where there were ample supplies of coal, water and slave labor. It was called I.G. Auschwitz. Finally the US Air Force destroyed the IG synthetic plants.At Nuremburg the IG Farben executives either got off or received light sentences.

Following the energy crisis of the 1970s, American oil companies renewed their interests in coal, buying up existing coal companies and getting control of reserves.Their emphasis was more on gasification than liquefaction since the supposed need at the time was to find a substitute for dwindling supplies of natural gas. In fact there was plenty of natural gas,and after first Carter, then Reagan, deregulated prices, the oil companies could make enough profit from selling real gas and didn’t need the synthetics. Once again synthetics slipped into the background. Oil companies cut back or ditched their coal holdings.

Now the cycle begins all over again. The energy industry sees sufficiently high prices to once again develop synthetics. But, as always, this will only happen if the politicians and taxpayers are dumb enough to pay for it.

JAMES RIDGEWAY is the author of 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All For Sale: The Control of Global Resources and A Guide to Environmental Bad Guys, co-written with Jeffrey St. Clair. Ridgeway can be reached through his website.


November 25, 2015
Jeff Taylor
Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism
Dana E. Abizaid
Provoking Russia
Oliver Tickell
Syria’s Cauldron of Fire: a Downed Russian Jet and the Battle of Two Pipelines
Patrick Cockburn
Trigger Happy: Will Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet Backfire on NATO?
Robert Fisk
The Soothsayers of Eternal War
Russell Mokhiber
The Coming Boycott of Nike
Ted Rall
Like Father Like Son: George W. Bush Was Bad, His Father May Have Been Worse
Matt Peppe
Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad
Martha Rosenberg
Pfizer Too Big (and Slippery) to Fail
Yorgos Mitralias
Bernie Sanders, Mr. Voutsis and the Truth Commission on Greek Public Debt
Jorge Vilches
Too Big for Fed: Have Central Banks Lost Control?
Sam Husseini
Why Trump is Wrong About Waterboarding — It’s Probably Not What You Think
Binoy Kampmark
The Perils of Certainty: Obama and the Assad Regime
Roger Annis
State of Emergency in Crimea
Soud Sharabani
ISIS in Lebanon: An Interview with Andre Vltchek
Thomas Knapp
NATO: This Deal is a Turkey
November 24, 2015
Dave Lindorff
An Invisible US Hand Leading to War? Turkey’s Downing of a Russian Jet was an Act of Madness
Mike Whitney
Turkey Downs Russian Fighter to Draw NATO and US Deeper into Syrian Quagmire
Walter Clemens
Who Created This Monster?
Patrick Graham
Bombing ISIS Will Not Work
Lida Maxwell
Who Gets to Demand Safety?
Eric Draitser
Refugees as Weapons in a Propaganda War
David Rosen
Trump’s Enemies List: a Trial Balloon for More Repression?
Eric Mann
Playing Politics While the Planet Sizzles
Chris Gilbert
“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Einstein’s Article
Charles Davis
NSA Spies on Venezuela’s Oil Company
Barry Lando
Shocked by Trump? Churchill Wanted to “Collar Them All”
Michael Barker
Democracy vs. Political Policing
Cal Winslow
When Workers Fight: the National Union of Healthcare Workers Wins Battle with Kaiser
Norman Pollack
Where Does It End?: Left Political Correctness
David Macaray
Companies Continue to Profit by Playing Dumb
Binoy Kampmark
Animals in Conflict: Diesel, Dobrynya and Sentimental Security
Dave Welsh
Defiant Haiti: “We Won’t Let You Steal These Elections!”
November 23, 2015
Vijay Prashad
The Doctrine of 9/11 Anti-Immigration
John Wight
After Paris: Hypocrisy and Mendacity Writ Large
Joseph G. Ramsey
No Excuses, No Exceptions: the Moral Imperative to Offer Refuge
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS Thrives on the Disunity of Its Enemies
Andrew Moss
The Message of Montgomery: 60 Years Later
Jim Green
James Hansen’s Nuclear Fantasies
Robert Koehler
The Absence of History in the Aftermath of Paris
Dave Lindorff
The US Media and Propaganda
Dave Randle
France and Martial Law
Gilbert Mercier
If We Are at War, Let’s Bring Back the Draft!
Alexey Malashenko
Putin’s Syrian Gambit
Binoy Kampmark
Closing the Door: US Politics and the Refugee Debate