31 May 2008

A coal-based future is - literally - no future

By Rupert Read

Estimates vary, but, roughly, the world has only about 40 years of known oil reserves (and 65 years of natural-gas supplies) remaining. At current rates of consumption, that is to say, the world will entirely run out of oil before 2050.

The world has enough coal reserves however to last an estimated 155 years, with some of the largest reserves being moreover in the two biggest oil-consuming countries, the US and China.

Hidden inside these facts and figures is a threat to our future so vast that even now barely anyone thinking about our ecology dares to contemplate it openly. The threat is that of human beings turning to coal on a vast scale to replace oil and gas as they progressively run out – and of liquefying and gasifying coal on a vast scale, to directly replace them. Why is this a threat? Because the carbon consequences would be astronomical.

The threat posed to our climate's stability by the resurgence of coal as a mass-scale fossil fuel is terrifying enough. 'Clean coal' remains little more than handy ad-man's greenwash: even if and when it becomes commercially viable, it will be a fairly poor option in terms of carbon emissions: but that point is far from having been reached yet, and may never be. By plumping for coal now, Britain and the US and China are playing Russian Roulette with the climate.

But the picture becomes far worse, when one does what virtually no-one yet has dared do: including the (already-technologically-available) processes of gasification and liquification into the picture. Gasification is a problem, because it will be terribly tempting to continue to run our cookers and boilers and so on ersatz (coal-based) natural gas – at a terrible carbon cost. But the biggest single reason why changing the state of coal is a terrifying threat to the human future has to do with the possibility of the production of 'coal-oil' on a large scale opening up.

For the big limitation of coal of course appears to be its unsuitability for contemporary transport systems. That is where oil is such a beautiful material. That (along with its fake green credentials) is at the root of the lunatic craze for large-scale biofuels, which we One World Columnists have been warning about for years, and which the rest of the world seems at last to have caught up with us about.

But sky-high oil prices, unlikely ever to descend to their levels of a few years ago (given that oil is indeed running out, becoming more and more precious), render the technology for liquefying coal into 'coal-oil' commercially viable.

The carbon 'hit' of coal is of course much greater than that of oil. But the prospect of coal-derived liquid petro-chemicals brings in its train the prospect of business-as-usual in the transportation sector – the one sector where carbon emissions are already rising. For there is of course an energy-intensive process involved, to turn coal into oil. Where will that energy be provided from? In a business-as-usual case: once again, from coal…

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a US-based environmental advocacy group, estimates that the production and use of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and other fuels from crude oil release on average about 27.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon. The production and use of a gallon of liquid fuel originating in coal emit about 49.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, they estimate. That's almost twice as much. Even some fans of the coal-to-oil plants describe them as carbon-dioxide factories that produce energy on the side.

And here is a worrying straw in the wing: In June 2006, two US Senators from coal-producing states, from Illinois and of Kentucky, introduced a bill to offer loan guarantees and tax incentives for US coal-to-liquid plants. The name of the Illinois Senator? One Barack Obama…

If we put Old King Coal in our tanks, we are stoking the fires of the apocalypse. It's worth repeating: "If you make gasoline or diesel out of coal, you double global warming pollution from cars and trucks." The words of David Friedman, a renewable-fuels expert at the renowned Union of Concerned Scientists.

If human civilisation is to survive and flourish, most of the Earth's remaining coal must remain in the ground. If we put off the impact of peak oil by switching to coal-oil, we will bring on climate catastrophe.

There must never be large-scale use of coal for making synthetic oil – if we want there to continue to be large-scale life.

Thanks for help with researching this column to Paul Roome and Chris Keene.