WASHINGTON — As fuel costs rise and the quest for alternative energy sources accelerates, lawmakers from coal-rich Kentucky are pinning their hopes on the continued role of coal in electricity generation and an environmentally controversial technology that converts coal to a liquid that can fuel cars.
During Congress' recent debate on climate change legislation, Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning stressed that coal provides more than half of the country's electricity and constitutes more than 90 percent of America's fossil-fuel resources. McConnell, Bunning and Rep. Ed Whitfield hope a planned $5 billion coal-to-diesel plant in Paducah will net millions in federal incentives and cement the state's position as a linchpin of increased coal-to-liquid fuel technology.
"The truth is we have enough coal in America to supply our nation for more than 250 years," McConnell said. "What Saudi Arabia is to oil, America is to coal. Greater use of coal-to-liquid fuel technology would take full advantage of this natural resource, which Kentucky has in abundance, while also benefiting our environment by reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other pollutants as compared to using conventional fuels."
However, such efforts are highly dependent on two things: developing a way to safely capture carbon emissions from coal burning plants and pump them underground, and the public's willingness to accept the high costs and environmental risks of producing that type of fuel.
The push for improved coal-to-liquid fuels technology and the needed federal aid has faced a steep uphill climb in Congress. Despite heavy lobbying efforts by the National Mining Association and the Coal-to-Liquids Coalition, which includes coal producers and proponents, the high initial costs of building coal-to-liquid fuel plants, lagging technological advances and pushback from environmental groups who say the idea of "clean coal" is a risky misnomer, has slowed efforts to a near crawl.
"At this point it's more talk than doing," said Burt Davis, associate director of the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research. "There is nowhere in the country producing coal-to-liquid fuels at anything near a commercial scale."
The major impediment in converting coal to liquid fuels is the capitol investment to build the plant, Davis said. Cost estimates range from $4 billion to $9 billion to build a 50,000 barrel-a-day plant. Once the plant is built the fuel could be produced for $10 a barrel, Davis said.
But the process produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide that could be released into the atmosphere. Many coal companies and environmentalists see a possible solution in capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground, where they can't trap heat in the atmosphere.
Citing a projected $1.8 billion price tag, the Bush administration in January canceled FutureGen, a coal-fired power plant that was to showcase just such a method. Though Kentucky did not make the cut for the site of the proposed plant, it was hoped the state could benefit from it through coal sales.
"The proponents of these plans and proponents of legislation that would incentivize liquid coal through mandates and loan guarantees have stopped one step short of putting their money where their mouth is," said George Peridas, science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If there were clauses in the legislation that said your emission levels cannot be any greater than petroleum-based fuels, you go a long way toward reducing your carbon footprint. They have never committed to that."
Environmentalists say that burning a gallon of coal-to-liquid fuel produces twice the amount of greenhouse gases as petroleum-based gasoline. The groups also worry that in Appalachia, the destructive technique of mountaintop removal mining would spike if production of coal-to-liquid fuels increased.
Lexington has the country's largest "carbon footprint" -- leading the nation in emitting the greenhouse gases that most scientists think contribute to global climate change. Other Kentucky cities follow closely, including the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area and Louisville, according to a study of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas by the Brookings Institution.
"When you're trying to cure your oil addiction you don't look for new veins to stab yourself in," Peridas said.
However, Kentucky lawmakers say there is a way to meet both environmental and fiscal concerns.
During last week's congressional hearing on energy and air quality, Whitfield defended the push.
"Far too often when we talk about climate change, coal becomes the punching bag with the presumption that this vital energy source is dirty," Whitfield said. "The development of clean coal technologies is at the forefront of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil."