(I promoted Jerome a Paris diary questioning Gov. Schweitzer's plans to use the Fischer-Tropsch process toward an energy-independent United States with a cleaner fossil fuel while transitioning to the clean energies of tomorrow. Jerome's questions were good ones, and it's nice to see the governor respondinig to some of those concerns -- kos.)
This country's energy policy, or lack thereof, is not only a disgrace, but an enormous obstacle. That's why I'm committed to making Montana a leader in clean, domestically produced fuel. Obviously you're all interested in engaging the issue too. I appreciate your thoughts and questions; hopefully I answer them all below.
QUESTION: The plant you talk about sounds great, but this one tells a different story. What's up?
ANSWER: The 1948 paper that is referenced relates to the synfuel plant of Louisiana, Missouri that used the direct coal hydrogenation Bergius process. While similar to the Fischer-Tropsch process we are considering, it is more of a brute force approach to turning coal into fuel. It got the job done, inefficiently, when coal-to-liquids technology was primitive. Moreover, any energy plant from the 1940s would be considered obsolete in light of the advances in general technology and computerization we have seen in the past 50 years. This progress, combined with specific Fischer-Tropsch innovations in the 1990s has made coal-to-liquids technology not only viable, but superior to conventional petroleum fuels. The slurry-bed reactors being built now are capable of handling 100 times previous production rates. Molybdenum and other rare catalysts that are subject to price fluctuation have been replaced by more stable commodities such as cobalt, and even iron. Additionally, companies are making catalysts with nanotechnology, creating an exponentially more efficient process.
QUESTION: What about the environment? This takes lots of water and makes solid waste I hear.
ANSWER: Water needs, traditionally an enormous hurdle, have been all but eliminated with the advent of a process that actually produces water with its excess hydrogen and oxygen. Plus, 40 years of coal development in the prairie of southeast Montana has taught us how to restore the land with responsible reclamation. And while solid wastes are a concern, it is certainly better to sequester these toxins, and sell or dispose of them in a controlled manner, than to release them into air and water as is done now.
QUESTION: Does the $35 per barrel estimate that makes this feasible take into account the environment and vehicle exhaust, especially CO2 emissions?
ANSWER: The price of $35 per barrel is a general estimate that takes into account capital repayment and operation under stringent environmental standards. As I have said before, if this wasn't a clean technology I wouldn't be interested in it. Carbon emissions are a particularly important consideration, because unchecked resource exploitation will destabilize our planet. But, the elements not used in hydrocarbon synthesis are sequestered, making the production and combustion of synfuel remarkably carbon-free. A study published in 1999 cited a 45% reduction in net carbon emissions from coal-based liquids compared to petroleum fuels, not counting the enormous potential of developments in CO2 sequestration. With such sequestration this plant could sell off CO2 for advanced oil recovery while making the lowest carbon signature fuels ever. In fact, synfuels are dramatically cleaner that conventional petroleum fuels in every emission. When the part of the process that generates electricity is compared to conventional coal plants, where we currently get most of our power, we find emission reductions in greenhouse gases, CO2, mercury and other particulate in excess of 90%. And looking to the future, the same plant can generate hydrogen for fuel-cells, once they become economical, supplying the future of transportation without the need for new technology or major capital investment.
QUESTION: Ok, this is cleaner fuel, but it's still a fossil fuel. What does this do for the long term?
ANSWER: The sad reality is that federal leadership has not made energy independence a priority. But as has been pointed out, such independence includes not only development of domestic resources, but reductions in demand brought about by renewable energy development, serious conservation efforts, and commitment to funding research on hybrid and zero emissions fuel-cell vehicles and fuel cells for stationary power generation. In the coming years, as the country shifts to primarily hybrid cars we can offer ultra-clean synthetic fuel, reducing overall emissions exponentially. But as oil executives have been telling me for months, this plant -like any fossil fuel project- is not the long-term future of energy. On the other hand, coal-to-liquids processes are the perfect solution for the near future, bridging the petroleum economy of the past and the hydrogen economy of the future. And with almost 600 million tons of publicly owned coal, and another 120 billion statewide, no place is in a better position to homestead the future of clean, domestic energy than Montana.