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Coal to Liquids = Climate Catastrophe

In the horror shop of unconventional fossil fuels, “coal to liquids” is one of the ugliest.  Yet here in the American West, this dirty energy monster might actually gain a foothold, a disturbing prospect for our climate and for the future clean energy.

If you haven’t heard of the concept of coal to liquids, that’s probably because it truly is as outlandish as it sounds.  Essentially, solid coal, which is mostly carbon, is converted to a hydrocarbon liquid like diesel or gasoline through a complex refinement.  Far from a simple conversion, the process requires immense amounts of energy, water, and chemicals.  Of course, when it’s all done, the liquid is simply burned.

Coal is already the dirtiest fossil fuel, but turning it to liquid for fuel is like creating a monster.  In fact, estimates indicate that coal to liquids is the most carbon intensive form of fuel production.  And in the face of renewables like wind and solar, which don’t require a carbon intensive refining process, aren’t burned, and don’t require water to produce, it’s laughable to think coal to liquids would remotely be considered a viable form of energy.

In spite of all this, the idea of coal to liquids has gained steam in Wyoming.  DKRW Energy, a Texas energy company, and Arch Coal have railroaded plans for a new coal to gasoline plant that would include two new coal mines, a new refinery, and a massive new industrial complex at the  foot of Elk Mountain, an iconic uplift skirted by Interstate 80.  Not surprisingly, in their apparent zeal to do anything for the coal industry, Wyoming officials have rubber-stamped DKRW and Arch’s plans.

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Coal to gasoline at the foot of Elk Mountain.

However, in what I can only describe as a prophetic sign of how outlandish the idea is in the first place, Wyoming’s green light hasn’t amounted to anything.  Not only has DKRW been unable to secure any legitimate financing for the project, Arch Coal recently announced an irretrievable $25 million loss over its investment in the project.  The lack of money has plagued the project with delays.

In fact, facing the potential withdrawal of a state issued permit for failure to construct, DKRW poured two concrete slabs on the site of its proposed plant.  Construction of these two slabs prompted the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council last fall to give DKRW 30 more months to start building in earnest.

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Two slabs to the wind.

Normally, one would reasonably view this all as a clear sign that a coal to gasoline boondoggle is not a viable prospect.  However, in Wyoming, DKRW’s utter and complete failings to date have actually and unbelievably prompted the state’s Congressional delegation to call on the Department of Energy to fund the project to the tune of $1.75 billion.

That’s nearly two billion hard-earned taxpayer dollars that Senators Mike Enzi and John Barasso and Representative Cynthia Lummis are demanding the Department of Energy pony up for a project that has done nothing but lose money so far and is so outlandish that it’s virtually toxic to the private sector.

And that’s saying nothing of the insane climate consequences that would follow should the Department of Energy’s funding come to fruition.

True, it seems too crazy to believe, but let’s not forget that the Department of Energy has already proposed to fund DKRW once (a proposal that thankfully fizzled) and is increasingly circumspect on the subject.

About the only voice of sanity throughout all of this has been that of Dr. Jason Lillegraven, a geologist, zoologist, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wyoming, and astute expert of the Rocky Mountain landscape.

As one of the most eloquent and outspoken critics of DKRW’s plans, Dr. Lillegraven has good reason to be concerned.  Sure, much of it is rooted in his scientific interest in the area, after all he’s spent years meticulously mapping its geology, discovering, for example, the existence, of several klippe (for all you non-geologists, read up on what a klippe is, I promise your life will be better for it!).  However, as he aptly explained in a recent op-ed, what DKRW has proposed is so riddled with holes, unanswered questions, and inadequate state scrutiny, that it’s simply offensive from the standpoint of a citizen to see it receive such serious consideration.

Put another way, it doesn’t take a geologist to know that DKRW’s plans are bats–t insane.

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A Rocky Mountain geologist, Dr. Jason Lillegraven, in his native habitat.

But the worst part of DKRW’s boondoggle is what it threatens to do to a remote, undeveloped, and incredibly beautiful Wyoming landscape.

Last week, I had the opportunity to tour this area with Dr. Lillegraven, who gave me both an outstanding geology lesson (it’s been a long time since I’ve used the terms “allochthonous” and “autochthonous” in conversation!) and a firsthand look at the nightmare this coal to liquids project could bring.

The area was stunning.  It contains some of the last best habitat for the imperiled sage grouse in Wyoming, miles of unimpeded views, clean water, and untrammeled high plains.  As much of Wyoming has succumbed to fossil fuel industrialization, including unchecked oil and gas drilling and coal mining, this area has become a critical vestige.

It’s the essence of what makes Wyoming such a beautiful state.  Sadly, it could all be lost.

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According to DKRW’s plans, a coal strip mine would be located in the foreground.

Coal to liquids isn’t yet a reality and if common sense prevails, it never will be.  However, with Wyoming politicians clamoring for the coal industry and a Department of Energy that seems to believe an “all of the above” approach to energy means embracing even the most monstrous fossil fuels, we’re certainly not in the clear yet.

Ultimately, if DKRW can get its foot through the door in Wyoming, there’s no telling what other horrible forms of carbon intensive energy will follow.  It behooves every American who wants a safe climate, real clean energy, and real government accountability to speak out against this insanity and keep the catastrophe at bay.

Stay tuned for more on this issue from WildEarth Guardians.

UPDATE:  In early August 2014, Guardians and several other groups sent a letter to the Department of Energy calling on the Secretary to abandon its support for for this liquid coal boondoggle.  Last week, the Department responded, stating its commitment to ensuring that the loan guarantee program funds projects that “reduce the harmful emissions that contribute to climate change.”  We’ll see how things unfold, but the Department of Energy is true to its word that it will only fund projects that reduce carbon pollution, then it seems incredibly unlikely that DKRW will get its loan guarantee.

SECOND UPDATE:  In 2016, DKRW announced it was suspending its coal-to-liquid plans. Although for many, this seemed like a foregone conclusion, particularly since DKRW’s partner, Arch Coal, filed for bankruptcy in January of 2016, the news is a welcome confirmation those of us who have been calling for an end to this boondoggle for years.

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