By Brandon Wallace
As the world recognizes the encroaching problem of global warming, politicians—like Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)—environmental coalitions, and coal interest groups weigh in on the possible ramifications of revolutionizing the coal industry and the future of energy production.
Obama, who represents one of the United States’ major coal-producing states, is active in the heated arena addressing global warming and the search for new energy sources. At an event titled “Real Leadership for a Clean Energy Future” on Monday, Oct. 8, Obama said, “Global warming is not a someday problem, it is now.”
Yet the search for a solution to global warming does not always head in the direction of clean energy; coal and ethanol are still being bolstered as viable, domestic sources of energy.
Since June 2006, the Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed approximately 150 new coal power plants, as well as 200 to 300 new ethanol plants, many of which would be fueled by smaller, coal power plants.
Corey Henry, Coal Liquids Coalition spokesperson for the national Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said that liquifying coal to oil, a process known as coal-to-liquid (CTL), benefits America in a relatively simple way.
“By domestically liquefying coal, it lessens America’s reliance on foreign oils and the importation of gas and oil from the Middle East and elsewhere,” Henry said.
Advocates of the creation of coal-to-liquid power plants say the nation’s great coal reserves need to be utilized in order to halt U.S. dependency on foreign nations, which, according to Henry, would create hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs.
This is of particular interest in Pennsylvania and in Illinois, where 100 billion tons of coal, is produced.
Opponents, however, criticize the massive carbon dioxide emissions of coal—which many consider to contribute largely to global warming—as only a domestic remedy for a dependence on foreign oil.
In the middle of this debate is Barack Obama.
Obama has been developing and refining his plan for the development of CTL factories, promising to invest $150 billion over the next decade for “clean, affordable energy.” During the same speech, Obama said, “My plan isn’t just about making dirty energy expensive, it’s about making clean energy affordable.”
“It is no longer OK to say that Obama flat-out supports the liquefaction of coal,” David Willett, national press secretary of the Sierra Club, said. “Obama has looked at the issue more closely and has a much more detailed plan for dealing with global warming.”
According to Ben LaBolt, spokesperson for Obama for America, the candidate is clearing up his stance in where coal fits into the move for energy independence and the fight against climate change.
“Obama’s support for coal-to-liquid fuels is dependent on whether or not we can capture and sequester enough carbon to produce fuels that have 20 percent lower emissions than gasoline,” LaBolt said.
Originally, Obama attached a provision to the energy bill passed in 2005 that gave $85 million to test Illinois coal for transportation. Since then, however, Obama has revised his stance, saying he will only support CTL fuels that can be created using 20 percent less carbon dioxide than petroleum fuels, an act that is currently not technically possible.
Then, Obama co-sponsored the recently-introduced Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007 with Senator Jim Bunning (R-K), which would provide incentives to conduct research on CTL fuels.
“Obama was trying to sponsor legislation until a governmental group beat him up,” Mike Ewall, director and founder of the Energy Justice Network, said. “He’s been backpedaling.”
Despite intervention from the political sphere, environmentalists maintain that the mass production of CTL fuels would require massive amounts of water and exacerbate the global warming trend by releasing double the amount of greenhouse gases produced in oil refineries.
Willett said, “Compared to the process it takes to produce gasoline to oil, you get almost twice the amount of carbon into the air and that has to do with how dirty the process is for turning coal into liquid, because it takes a tremendous amount of energy.”
Henry countered this stance, saying, “All of the developers in the coalition—people who will be responsible for building these plants—are committed to using safer technologies to reduce the profile of CTL fields.”
Advocates promise the implementation of these safer technologies after the plants have already been created, thereby delaying the safe sequestering of the release of harmful gases produced by the liquefaction of coal.
Ewall explained the complicated nature of safer energy policies and why Congress passing a single bill can only function as a standard.
“I don’t know any proposed bills that aren’t going [to harm us], unless we have a pretty massive finance overhaul that takes corporate money out of politics,” Ewall said.
Ewall maintains that the involvement of big corporations, who are not interested in safer methods of power attainment like solar- and wind-produced, renewable energy delays the complete switch from oils and gases to the more environmentally friendly alternatives.
“Studies show that even if carbon emissions are reduced by 20 percent, emissions will be roughly equivalent to an oil refinery,” Ewall said. “They can’t really win.”