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Parallel Universe: Only Big Oil Keeps Us from Energy Independence

Posted by kinchendavid on July 16, 2006

By David M. Kinchen 
Hinton, WV A story by Matthew Wald in the July 5, 2006 New York Times says it all: “The coal in the ground in Illinois alone has more energy than all the oil in Saudi Arabia. The technology to turn that coal into fuel for cars, homes and factories is proven. And at current prices, that process could be at the vanguard of a big new industry.”   I might add, this is even truer for West Virginia than my home state of Illinois. So what’s the problem, why can’t we – supposedly the most technologically advanced nation in the world – use a more than 80-year-old German developed process that turns coal into liquid fuel? The Nazis used this process, developed under the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic democratic regime; South Africa used it and still uses it, taking advantage of that nation’s abundant coal.   I’ve opined numerous times about other nations, especially Brazil, and their successful moves toward energy independence. With oil at $75 a barrel, what are we waiting for?   What’s holding us back is Big Oil, companies like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Citgo and Conoco Phillips, with a major stake in petroleum. They tell us we don’t need no stinkin’ ethanol or diesel fuel from coal. No, just pay the exorbitant prices they’re charging for gasoline and diesel fuel. We’re already being gouged within an inch of our lives for natural gas, so why not take advantage of the suckers. Somebody’s gotta pay for Lee Raymond’s $400 million Exxon retirement package.   Wald’s story is datelined East Dubuque, Illinois. That’s way up in the far northwestern corner of Illinois, the part that was missed by the glaciers that flattened the northern part of the state. East Dubuque is not far from Galena, which looks a lot like Hinton, only with dozens more antique shops and restaurants. It was U.S. Grant’s hometown in pre-Civil War days.   Across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa, Wald says that “Rentech Inc., a research-and-development company based in Denver, recently bought a plant that has been turning natural gas into fertilizer for forty years. Rentech sees a clear opportunity to do something different because natural gas prices have risen so high. In an important test case for those in the industry, it will take a plunge and revive a technology that exploits America’s cheap, abundant coal and converts it to expensive truck fuel.”   With natural gas at sky-high prices, John H. Diesch, the manager of the plant, told Wald he doesn’t see much future in the present operation. Wald adds: “With today’s worries about the price and long-term availability of oil, experts like Bill Reinert, national manager for advanced technologies at Toyota say that turning coal into transportation fuel could offer a bright future. ‘It’s a huge deal,’ he said.”   The coal would be shipped from the southern Illinois coalfields by rail or barge to East Dubuque where it would be turned into liquid fuel – diesel or home heating oil using the technology known as Fischer-Tropsch, for the German chemists who developed it in 1925, Wald says.   He adds that “Sasol, the company that has used the technology for decades in South Africa, is exploring potential uses around the world and is conducting a feasibility study with a Chinese partner of two big coal-to-liquids projects in western China. Last August, Syntroleum, based in Tulsa, agreed with Linc Energy, of Brisbane, Australia, to develop a coal-to-liquids plant in Queensland.”   Not far from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, a Cambridge, MA company called Great Point Energy is “\ refining a process called catalytic gasification to convert coal into methane or substitute natural gas,” according to an NPR Morning Edition report by Elizabeth Shogren. “In their process, coal is mixed with a catalyst and fed into a gasifier: a tall, narrow, metal cylindrical container. Inside the gasifier, the coal and the catalyst are combined with steam and subjected to pressure. That causes a chemical reaction that converts them into carbon monoxide and hydrogen.” For more on Great Point Energy, check out Shogren’s story – which also mentions Rentech and other coal into liquid and gaseous fuels — at:   http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5356683.   What’s the catch, aside from disinformation campaigns by Big Oil? One problem is that the Fischer-Tropsch process produces far more carbon dioxide, which contributes to (Holy Al Gore!) GLOBAL WARMING more than producing vehicle fuel from oil or using clean-burning natural gas. I suspect that places like West Virginia have plenty of natural gas, but the producers are capping wells to keep prices high. So call me a believer in conspiracy theories; I was born at night, but it sure as heck wasn’t last night!   Here’s the deal: We should fund a Manhattan Project – the rush program to develop an Atomic before the Nazis — to develop clean processes to convert dirty coal into clean diesel fuel, heating oil and even gasoline. This project would be tied in with financial support for companies to turn corn and sugar cane into ethanol. We also have biomass projects underway. We could use sewage sludge to produce fuel: Milwaukee has been producing Milorganite for decades, using sewage sludge to produce fertilizer. The same sludge has been used to produce fuel. Here’s a web site explaining Milorganite: http://www.retrocom.com/retromilw/milorg.htm.   Turning coal into liquid fuel is something that should echo with West Virginians, who’ve seen the state’s glass, steel and chemical industries almost disappear, as Senatorial candidate John Raese reminded us in an interview with me on June 29, 2006: Wald says the Rentech plant in East Dubuque will “bring back an industry that’s shutting down.” With our abundant coal, we could become the Switzerland of America, with people from other states flocking here for the jobs. And the Swiss have few of the natural resources that this state is blessed with.   If we could develop an atom bomb and get men on the moon, surely we can take the proven Fischer-Tropch process and make it green. What this would entail fits in nicely with what Morgantown businessman Raese told me last month when I interviewed him at Tamarack. Plants like Rentech’s in West Virginia would spark a revival of a state that desperately needs good-paying industrial jobs.   * * * *   Here is a story I wrote last fall on coal to liquid fuel:  Oct. 16, 2005   NEWS ANALYSIS/COMMENTARY: Technology for Turning Coal into Liquid Fuel Has Been Around for 80 Years; All We Need is Capital—and a Way to Stop Big Oil from Killing the Efforts    By David M. Kinchen    Hinton, WV – When Gov. Joe Manchin proposed a coal liquefaction plant for the Mountain State this week, he wasn’t talking about some pie-in-the-sky scheme decades away technology-wise. Turning coal into liquid fuel for cars and trucks has been around since the 1920s; the Nazis used it during World War II to power their war machine and apartheid South Africa used it when many countries wouldn’t trade with the racist country. South Africa still produces 150,000 barrels of fuel a day from its rich coal resources.   The process is called Fischer-Tropsch, named for the German scientists who developed the process in the 1920s for converting coal to diesel fuel, which powered German tanks and trucks. A story in the Aug. 2, 2005 Billings (Mont.) Gazette by Jim Gransbery mentions the process and tells how “energy technology firms in the United States and elsewhere have fine-tuned F-T to make both its process and products pollution-free.”   The version proposed by Manchin would focus on the development of “state-of-the-art, multi-product facilities that would adapt to the changing needs of the marketplace and produce whatever product is most needed at a specific time – be it natural gas, diesel fuel, jet fuel, hydrogen, or chemicals.” This sets it apart from the two major federally-funded coal gasification plants that are operating near Tampa, FL and Terre Haute, IN. Gransbery’s article – worth looking up via the link at the end of this story for those who want the complete text – says that Manchin’s counterpart in Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, has become a fan of liquefaction of coal “because the price of oil is at unheard- of levels, and the United States needs alternative energy supplies,” Gransbery writes. Everyone said that liquefaction would be economically practical only when oil sells for more than $40 a barrel. It’s almost $60 right now.   Both Schweitzer and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. are in favor of the F-T process, suitably modified. Baucus has put tax incentives for the process into the new energy and highway bills, and several U.S. energy technology firms have perfected the method. The raw material for liquefaction in the Big Sky state would be 533 million tons of federal coal.

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