Coal Synfuels: A Giant Leap Backward

America’s coal companies and their political supporters continue to push for the creation of a massive coal synthetic fuels industry. This time, they say, it would be a real industry, not the half-baked “spray and pray” operations that have legally but unethically siphoned off billions in tax dollars for bogus “synthetic” fuels projects.

Recently, a handful of Appalachian congressmen have formed a “coal-to-liquid coalition” to fight for tax incentives and government mandated use of synfuels.
Legislation pouring billions of dollars into this unworthy enterprise has been introduced. Eight coal-to-liquid plants are in the planning and construction phase, including one in Mingo, WV, and dozens more are contemplated.

The environmental impacts of coal synfuels alone should be more than enough reason to stop this dinosaur in its tracks. Along with at least twice the C02 impact of petroleum, coal synfuels are also made up of carcinogenic co-products like benzene. Expanded production would also worsen the effects of mountaintop removal mining and have drastic impacts on water supplies. Coal synfuels use three to five gallons of water for every gallon of fuel produced.

As if all these environmental costs weren’t enough, the up front capital costs of synfuels at over $6 per gallon of annual capacity are far higher than alternatives, such as agriculturally based biofuels at a comparable $1 to $3. The cost of a gallon of coal synfuel will have to be far higher than gasoline today in order to compete, especially in the unlikely event that the “carbon capture” technology is ever deployed.

Coal synfuels supporters seem to take a perverse pride in the historical fact that the Germans developed the coal hydrogenation and liquefaction processes to fuel Nazi conquests in World War II. Yet most reasonable people would agree that this technology from the past deserves to stay there, and not become part of America’s energy and environmental future.


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