Coal Tattoo


TransGas Development proposes to build a $3 billion coal-to-liquids fuel plant at Mingo County’s new energy park near Gilbert.

The Associates Press put out an un-bylined story yesterday about the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s plans to issue an air pollution permit for the proposed TransGas Development liquid coal plant in Mingo County.

AP had an unfortunate quote from Randy Harris, the project director for the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, which is trying to promote the project:

This proves that clean coal can be done.

Well, I read through the draft permit and WVDEP’s engineering evaluation on the agency’s Web site.  And nowhere in there does it say anything at all about this plant capturing and sequestering its carbon dioxide emissions …

Joe Kessler, an engineer at WVDEP’s Division of Air Quality, told me TransGas does plan to recycle about 25 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions back into the plant. But, according to Kessler, the company is still estimated to release about 3.6 million tons of CO2 every year into the atmosphere. And John Benedict, WVDEP’s director of air quality, told me:

It emits a fair amount of CO2.

Of course, West Virginia has no limits on CO2 emissions. And Congress is still debating what — if any — limits it’s going to put on this heat-trapping gas. So naturally, the WVDEP’s proposed permit for TransGas doesn’t include any such limits.

Gov. Joe Manchin has made liquid coal a cornerstone of his energy plan for the state, calling for a series of such facilities around West Virginia. When TransGas announced its project — at a Manchin-sponsored energy forum last December — company president Adam Victor was a bit coy about the plant’s potential emissions. As I reported at the time:

Victor told reporters the plant would be a “near-zero emissions facility,” that would capture sulfur, mercury and other “regulated pollutants” before they go out a stack.

TransGas also plans to capture carbon dioxide emissions, but does not have a concrete plan for disposing of the gas that is most responsible for global warming.

“Whatever the permitting process tells us to do is what we’ll do,” Victor said, while conceding that federal and state laws place no limits on carbon dioxide emissions to the air.

Victor said his firm hopes to persuade the federal government to grant it a right of way to send carbon dioxide emissions through interstate pipelines to the Texas coast, where it could be pumped underground to help force out more oil and gas, and to be safely sequestered.

As best I can tell, there’s nothing about any of that pipeline stuff in the plans submitted to WVDEP. I left Victor a message today, but he hasn’t called me back.

The point here is that all this talk about this facility being “clean coal” ignores the fact that — as most energy experts know — liquid coal produces twice as much greenhouse gas as regular old petroleum fuels, unless the plants that convert coal to liquid capture their carbon dioxide emissions.

As a Rand Corp. study said last year in a report on liquid coal and oil sands:

Since major investments in coal-to-liquids become more likely if environmentally sound carbon capture and storage can be commercialized at relatively low cost, the future expansion of this fuel source will be strongly influenced by future private sector and government initiatives to support such commercialization. However, even with carbon capture and storage deployed, neither alternative fuel offers a path toward large long-term reductions in total carbon dioxide emissions to limit climate change. There will still be a need to develop lower-carbon fuel options, such as fuel synthesized from a mixture of coal and sustainably grown biomass.

Still, most of West Virginia’s political leaders — including Manchin and Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller — have praised this Mingo County project. They like the 1,200 construction jobs and 350 full-time positions TransGas promises to create in a part of our state that desperately needs an economic boost.

But even the U.S. Air Force — once a big promoter of liquid coal — has stopped pursuing this technology, as Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council recently explained:

The decision was a long time in the making as the technology’s deep inherent flaws came under increasing scrutiny. Environmentally, these fuels are disastrous, emitting nearly double the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions as conventional fuels. Thus, commercializing liquid coal would stymie our efforts to mitigate global warming.

But isn’t liquid coal — as Gov. Manchin says — good for homeland security, making our country more energy independent and secure? Not so much:

… Global warming has drawn the attention of military planners, veterans and security experts because of its profound impacts on national security. Climate change, they agree, will intensify resource competition, humanitarian crises, and tension in the world’s most volatile regions. The National Intelligence Council notes that the “demands for potential humanitarian responses may significantly tax U.S. military transportation and support force structures, resulting in a strained readiness posture and decreased strategic depth for combat operations.” Given the bleak outlook, it is easy to see why the Air Force would abandon a self defeating fuel technology that makes global warming worse. And it is highly reassuring to know that our leaders in the armed services are making the right decisions on energy policy.  By dropping liquid coal, the Air Force can fully focus on sustainable energy resources that mitigate the security risks of climate change.