The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)  [Printer-friendly version]
June 5, 2007


Coal-to-liquid technology is expensive, harmful to the environment and
inefficient. The federal government should take no part in subsidizing

The problem with U.S. energy policy is the same problem with so many
issues addressed by the political process: The narrow interests of
well-connected, well-heeled and powerful industries take precedent
over the broader interests of society.

The U.S. policy on ethanol, for instance, is great for corn producers.
But it makes little sense otherwise.

There are far better source stocks for ethanol and other biofuels than
corn. But the U.S. government gives hefty incentives for production
from corn.

The result: higher corn prices, which impacts everything from the
availability of tortillas in Mexico to the price of milk produced by
corn-fed cows.

Now coal-area lawmakers like Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon,
are trying to push Congress into an even bigger energy boondoggle:
billion-dollar subsidies and guaranteed loans for coal-to-liquid
production plants.

The idea of transforming America's abundant coal resources into a
replacement for foreign oil has been the coal industry's Holy Grail
for decades.

It is a seductive prospect. But there are many reasons the technology
-- used by Germany during World War II --hasn't flourished so far,
even with various massive government incentives attempted throughout
the years.

Until recently, the price of oil hasn't remained consistently high
enough to make coal an economical competitor. The process for
liquefying coal is complex and expensive.

In addition, the process also leads to a far greater release of
greenhouse gases than refining and burning petroleum.

Some far-fetched and impractical solutions have been proposed for that
problem, including sequestering the emissions either in the ocean or

The expense would be enormous. According to a study by the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it would cost $70 billion to
build enough coal-to-liquid plants to replace just 10 percent of the
United States' gasoline consumption.

The National Coal Council, an industry-laden advisory board, painted
an even bleaker picture. It estimated that a $211 billion investment
would be needed over the next 20 years to replace 10 percent of
current gasoline usage.

More important, the council found that burning the same amount of coal
to produce electricity to power plug-in hybrids would replace twice as
much oil without generating nearly as much greenhouse gas.

Boucher is one of the prime movers behind the incentive plan, along
with coal state neighbor Rep. Nick Rahall from West Virginia.

Both men need to look beyond the campaign contributions and political
clout of the coal industry to do what's right for the nation and the

Liquefying coal is not the answer to either energy independence or a
cleaner environment.

Copyright 2007