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
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 in 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
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
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�
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
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 liquifaction 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
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 extraction 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.