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Published: Friday, 6/22/2007

The carbon fuel conundrum

JUST as the Bush Administration is grudgingly acknowledging the real danger from global climate change, the American coal industry has launched a heavy-duty lobbying effort in Congress that could pretty much wipe out efforts to curb the use of carbon-based fuels.

The industry is seeking billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded loan guarantees, tax credits, and subsidies for coal liquefaction projects, which would produce diesel and other liquid fuels to power motor vehicles. One such project is under way here in coal-rich Ohio. A Canadian firm is working on a $4 billion plant in Columbiana County.

The aim is a laudable one: to exploit this nation's huge reserves of coal and achieve some measure of energy independence from the volatile Middle East.

But it would come at the expense of the most serious environmental challenge facing our planet - rapid climate change produced by the burning of carbon fuels, change that could make the Earth's climate hostile to its inhabitants in the not-too-distant future.

Congress, a body rarely noted for ignoring quick-fix headlines (or industry campaign contributions), cannot afford to plunge the country too deeply into the vagaries of coal-to-liquid fuel production, which would generate more emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gases at greater cost than if the nation stuck to gasoline refined from ordinary oil.

Conservation - primarily from mandates for more fuel-efficient vehicles and greater use of mass transit and renewable fuels - would be a better basis for a national energy policy but it would require some measure of economic and lifestyle sacrifice on the part of the car-conscious American people.

In the meantime, the coal industry is working to persuade Congress that energy independence can be achieved without much inconvenience - just a truckload of taxpayer subsidies to get its liquefaction projects on track.

While these projects have the potential to produce huge profits, they also would, according to environmental experts, release more climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere than from conventional fuels.

The Natural Resources Defense Council points out that the coal liquefaction process, while cutting sulfur output, would double CO2 emissions compared with petroleum refining. Even if the excess CO2 could be siphoned off and injected underground, as proponents plan, the resulting "well to wheels" emissions still would be some 8 percent greater.

This would amount to trading one gigantic problem for another, or even making greenhouse-gas pollution worse. Moreover, there is no assurance that liquefaction would be cheaper, and the ramped up production of coal that would be required to feed the plants would prompt further environmental damage in the form of pollution from underground and surface mining operations.

While it is true that the United States possesses many decades worth of recoverable coal reserves - up to 200 years, depending on who is doing the counting - it makes little sense to merely swap climate-damaging technologies as a matter of convenience.

Conservation is still the best foundation for energy independence, and the American people, along with Congress, must be aware that policy choices must be made not for short-term gain but with the long-range consequences for the planet in mind.



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