The New York Times article on synfuel sparked a good discussion about clean coal and carbon sequestration. Here's my two cents about why I believe clean coal technologies like coal to diesel and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) generation are vital for the world economy and environment.
First, we have to address the realities of peak oil, the exponential growth in world energy demand, and the price that America is paying for its dependence on foreign oil. I am a strenuous promoter of bio-fuels and other renewable energy for these very reasons, but it's not clear that these will be sufficient by themselves. I'd argue that converting coal to transportation fuel has to be part of the basket of solutions.
Second, as I've said many times before, I am not interested in producing synthetic fuel from coal unless carbon dioxide sequestration is an integral part of the plan. If carbon dioxide is sequestered, synfuels can be made from coal with roughly the same carbon footprint as petroleum, measuring from production to consumption. And if gasification technology is applied to the production of electric power along with liquid fuel, emissions per unit of energy created is dramatically lower because electric generation using IGCC is a near-zero emissions technology if CO2 is sequestered.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide sequestration is something the world will have to rely on in the coming decades, and America should lead the way. Here in Montana, we are mapping our underground geologic formations and studying the science of putting carbon back into the ground. In particular, Montana has an important economic driver for clean coal production: enhanced oil recovery, the process by which carbon dioxide is injected into old oil wells that have decreased production. The gas loosens what is otherwise unrecoverable oil, which comes to the surface while the CO2 remains below and, over time, reacts with the soil and minerals and becomes a solid. This proven technology is currently employed just across our border, at the Dakota Gasification plant, which pipes carbon dioxide several hundred miles to the oil fields of Saskatchewan.
In the bigger picture, China and India, with their exploding energy demands, have plans on the drawing board for literally hundreds of coal-fired, traditional power plants. If that happens, no policy America can implement domestically could overcome this significant boost to global warming. If, however, the developing world can be persuaded to convert to IGCC generation, where coal is gasified and the carbon dioxide is capture-ready, that impact can be greatly diminished. If America leads with this technology, we can influence developing nations while also cleaning up our own utility industry.
So coal-to-diesel, in my mind, is a piece of a larger national plan that 1) takes us through the next several decades to the hydrogen economy, 2) includes a heavy dose of biofuels and other renewables, 3) breaks oil dependence in the short term, and 4) provides a boost for technology that will help us combat global warming.