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It was at the onset of the Nazi era that coal-to-liquid technology came to the forefront of modern energy science. In the latter part of the 1920s, German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the initial processes to liquify the dark rock into fuel. The procedure was utilized throughout World War II by both Germany and Japan. In fact, coal-to-liquid technology largely fueled Hitler’s bloody campaigns, as Germany had little petroleum reserves but held vast amounts of coal deposits throughout the country. Not too unlike the United States’ fossil fuel status today.
By 1930 Fischer and Tropsch had applied for several U.S. patents, but it wasn’t until earlier this summer that the first U.S. coal-to-liquid plant had been slated to be constructed in West Virginia. But while liquid coal may help replace petroleum based fossil fuels, it is certainly not an answer to climate change.
“The total emissions rate for oil and gas fuels is about 27 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon, counting both production and use,” states the Natural Resource Defense Council. “[T]he estimated total emissions from coal-derived fuel is more like 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon — nearly twice as much.”
The price of oil per barrel has risen dramatically in the past year, and the U.S.’s dependency on foreign crude has become less stable as tensions in the Middle East have escalated with the ongoing war in Iraq and the potential confrontation with Iran. The major presidential candidates have laid out their plan of attack to dealing with the crisis, echoing many old solutions to our 21st century environmental troubles.
Sen. John McCain, for example, wants to drill off the coast of California, build dozens of nuclear plants from Oregon to Florida, and slightly increase fuel efficiency of automobiles. Similarly, Sen. Barack Obama supports an array of neoliberal strategies to deal with the country’s volatile energy situation. He is not opposed to the prospect of nuclear power, endorses capping-and-trading the coal industry’s pollution output, and supports liquefied coal.
Well, that’s a maybe on the latter.
“Senator Obama supports … investing in technology that could make coal a clean-burning source of energy,” Obama stated an email sent out by his campaign in June 2007. “However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels.”
You did not just read a lofty proclamation from a change agent, but a well-crafted rationale meant to appease green voters. Meanwhile, back in the Senate, Obama’s record relays a much different position on the subject.
It was only six months before the aforementioned email that Republican Senator Jim Bunning and Obama introduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. The bill, introduced in January 2007, was referred to the Senate committee on finance and, if passed, would ultimately amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as well as the Energy Policy and Conservation Act to evaluate the feasibility of including coal-to-oil fuels in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and provide incentives for research and plant construction.
Shortly after the introduction of the bill, Tommy Vietor, Obama’s spokesman, defended the senator’s proposal, "Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
Has Obama had a change of heart, or has he just flip-flopped around like a suffocating fish for political leverage? The answer to that question may reside along the nuanced path we are getting all too used to seeing candidate Obama traverse these days. As his campaign website reads:
“Obama will significantly increase the resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low-carbon coal technologies. Obama will consider whatever policy tools are necessary, including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities, to ensure that we move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology.”
The apartheid government of South Africa was the first to use liquid coal for motor vehicles, and it seems, despite the “low carbon coal” rhetoric, that Obama may be poised to carry on the dirty legacy of liquid coal. Sen. McCain, for what’s its worth, has also announced support for “clean coal” technology.
The move from foreign oil to locally mined coal, “low carbon” or otherwise (no coal energy has zero carbon emissions), would only change the dynamics of the U.S.’s massive energy consumption, not its habits, which is at the heart of our current energy woes.
As a result of our consumptive lifestyles, the mountaintops of Appalachia, from Tennessee up to the heart of West Virginia, are being ravaged by the coal industry — an industry that cares little about the welfare of people or the land that it is adversely affecting with its mining operations.
The debris from the holes, often 500 feet deep, produce toxic debris that is then dumped in nearby valleys, polluting rivers and poisoning local communities downstream. There has been little to no oversight of the wholesale destruction of these mountains and Obama and McCain have not addressed the ruin in any of their bullet point policy papers on “clean coal.” No state or federal agencies are tracking the cumulative effect of the aptly named “mountaintop removal,” where entire peaks are being blown apart, only to expose tiny seams of the black rock.
Any “clean coal” technology, whether it be liquidification or otherwise, would surely rely on the continuation of such brutal methods of extraction, and carbon output would still be significant. Like his Republican opponent, Obama has stayed silent on the issue of mountaintop removal. McCain’s ignorance may be for a reason, however, as the presumptive Republican nominee has received over $49,000 from the coal industry this election cycle compared to Obama’s meager $12,000, which makes Obama’s green coal embrace all the more bewildering.
Sen. Obama may receive high marks from the League of Conservation Voters and be touted by the Sierra Club for being marginally better than John McCain on the environment, but when it comes to his position on the U.S.’s coal extracting future, the senator’s position is not only wrong, it is absolutely disastrous.
JOSHUA FRANK is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in July 2008.