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Coal in cars: great fuel or climate foe?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2007

Coal companies want to fuel your car and lately, they're getting a lot of political support for the idea.

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Turning coal into gasoline-like fuel has several advantages. It would use America's vast coal reserves. It would reduce the nation's thirst for foreign oil and help dampen spikes in energy prices. There's just one problem: It is not "climate friendly" – at least, not yet.

Coal-to-liquids (CTL) fuels could end up emitting nearly double the carbon dioxide that the equivalent amount of gasoline does, mostly because of the way it's manufactured. The CTL industry says new technology will fix the problem. But because such technology is not yet developed, it's unclear whether CTL fuels would be competitive without state and federal subsidies, even competing against high-priced diesel, jet fuel, or gasoline, analysts say.

That's where politicians come in. The National Mining Association has ramped up Capitol Hill lobbying, creating a new coalition and website, Many in Washington are warming to the idea. CTL bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate have received strong backing.

"We have a very good chance of getting legislation passed in this Congress because momentum continues to grow," says Corey Henry, a spokesman for the Coal-to-Liquids Coalition, which includes coal producers and CTL developers. "It's one energy solution that does enjoy broad bipartisan support."

Supporters of the bill range from Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois to President Bush. In his State of the Union speech Jan. 23, Mr. Bush called for the United States to produce 35 billion gallons of "alternative fuel" by 2017. The nation doesn't grow enough corn to meet even half that total. By setting that goal and using the term "alternative" rather than "renewable" fuel, the president was making the case for CTL, some analysts say.

"To me, the president's speech was all about turning coal into liquid fuel," says Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a think tank focused on energy security.

Global-warming impact

In coal-rich Illinois, Senator Obama's support is more nuanced. Citing energy-security concerns, his bipartisan legislation would grant tax and other subsidies for development of CTL refineries. He also supports separate global-warming legislation that, if passed, would keep carbon emissions from CTL refineries under control, he says. But Obama's CTL bill does not mandate capture of carbon dioxide.

That stance is likely to put him at odds with many environmentalists, who argue that a move to CTL will worsen global warming. Manufacturing and burning a gallon of CTL fuel creates nearly double the greenhouse-gas emissions that a gallon of gasoline does, they say.

"We want more energy security, too, but we're fighting this coal-to-liquids concept because it's just so bad for global warming," says Elizabeth Martin-Perera, a climate policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a Washington environmental group. "It takes us from the frying pan into the fire."

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