Prolonged Fuel Issue Needs Solution

Posted April 20, 2007 at 3:51pm

In recent weeks, hardworking Americans have again started to feel the pinch of high gasoline prices. The causes are manifold, including historic instability in oil-producing regions, a world market that continues to gobble up greater and greater quantities of oil, and harsh weather conditions that can interfere with production and cause greater competition for fuel here at home.

Far from new occurrences, these are long-standing realities that we have been sadly neglectful in addressing. It seems that we, as a nation, are awakened to these realities only when the price figures at the pump flip by at increasing speed as the quantity of gas we actually pour hums ever more slowly into the tank.

As we consider our nation’s recent involvement in the Middle East and the long history of violence and unrest in that region, we must acknowledge the folly of remaining too reliant on foreign sources of fuels. Clearly, there are few issues of greater consequence to war and peace, and to our economic stability and domestic security, than the availability of a sufficient supply of reasonably priced energy. That our nation could, in fact, achieve a reasonable degree of energy independence is a means toward avoiding wars looming on the horizon. And with supplies of oil expected to peak in the next 30 years or so, the urgency for a more reliable source of energy is clearer than ever.

But how do we get there?

According to the Department of Energy, the possibility of $35- to $45-per-barrel oil is attainable from a source right here on our own shores. That source is coal — the most abundant natural energy resource in the U.S. and throughout the world. Various conversion technologies have been used in other countries for decades to liquefy coal to power existing engines, and the same can be done right here.

China, India and Indonesia — huge users of oil in their own right — already have been actively pursuing coal liquefaction to answer their expanding energy needs. And these fuels currently represent about one-third of the consumption in South Africa alone. These nations have embraced commercializing coal-to-liquid technologies for transportation fuel; however, myopically, the U.S. stands far behind in its efforts to pursue liquefied coal as a means to diversify our own energy portfolio.

But that is beginning to change.

Together with some of my like-minded colleagues in the House and Senate, I have worked to advance the development of coal liquefaction technologies. The Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007, which I am sponsoring with Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), would put coal-to-liquid technologies on the fast track by helping to stimulate the production, marketing and use of these fuels within our own borders.

Interests across the nation are advocating coal-to-liquids as a means of achieving greater American energy independence and economic stability. Several potential production sites are now under various stages of development by businesses on the front edge of the industry. Zero-emissions technologies and carbon sequestration are, at long last, getting serious and much-warranted attention. And potential customers are starting to line up, with the U.S. Air Force leading the pack.

As a huge user of fuels — consuming 2.5 billion gallons annually — the Air Force has recognized that coal can help to address that branch’s unique energy challenges, freeing it from the whims of foreign producers and better ensuring troop readiness. It already is enthusiastically testing the fuel in its air fleet. If the Air Force were to become a major buyer of liquid coal, it would help reduce the cost of the fuel, making it more readily available to working American families who most need relief from skyrocketing energy costs.

All of these events have brought us to a promising energy nexus. For the first time in decades, a host of diverse interests are lining up and ready to act to address our liquid fuel challenges. But so are the naysayers, including many who refuse to recognize that liquid coal, with appropriate emissions controls and carbon sequestration, is a solid alternative.

These doubters will not see that coal liquefaction plants can process fuels in a way that allows far less mercury, sulfur dioxide and particulate pollution to be released into our atmosphere than does the production of conventional fuels that currently power our cars and trucks. They also ignore the figures that show liquid coal has the potential to produce lower levels of tailpipe emissions than those resulting from regular gasoline.

Instead of looking at coal creatively and putting faith in American know-how to advance our energy frontiers, these folks press for the likes of electric cars and ethanol. But neither provides a complete solution for our most pressing energy predicament.

Ethanol, which President Bush has ambitiously been touting as the key to decreasing overall gas usage by 20 percent over the next 10 years, is not the most energy-efficient or cost-effective option.

According to a recent published opinion by two University of Minnesota professors, it takes a great deal of fossil fuel to produce usable biofuels. Their studies indicate that if every one of the 70 million acres in this country on which corn was grown in 2006 were used for ethanol, the amount produced would displace only 12 percent of the U.S. gasoline market. And it should be noted that, as farmers produce more corn for ethanol, likely reducing production of other crops, the negative consequences will ripple through the economy, causing a rise in the cost of corn and other foods common to the family dinner table.

As for electric cars — one has to wonder where proponents think the electric energy used to charge those cars comes from. Most of it, in fact, comes from power plants that burn coal.

If past trends hold true, this window of opportunity for making real progress in our transportation fuel challenges may be open for a limited time. It is critical, therefore, that instead of standing in the way of change, we move quickly to forge new energy frontiers. We must do so, and we ought to make the energetic pursuit of liquid coal a cornerstone of those efforts. Coal certainly has been a critical fuel to America’s energy past, and this resource is proving to be particularly critical to America’s energy future.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.