Barack Obama’s Green Coal

It was at the onset of the Nazi era that coal-to-liquid technology came to the forefront of modern energy science. In the latter part of the 1920s, German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the initial processes to liquify the dark rock into fuel. The procedure was utilized throughout World War II by both Germany and Japan. In fact, coal-to-liquid technology largely fueled Hitler’s bloody campaigns, as Germany had little petroleum reserves but held vast amounts of coal deposits throughout the country. Not too unlike the United States’ fossil fuel status today.

By 1930 Fischer and Tropsch had applied for several U.S. patents, but it wasn’t until earlier this summer that the first U.S. coal-to-liquid plant had been slated to be constructed in West Virginia. But while liquid coal may help replace petroleum based fossil fuels, it is certainly not an answer to climate change.

“The total emissions rate for oil and gas fuels is about 27 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon, counting both production and use,” states the Natural Resource Defense Council. “[T]he estimated total emissions from coal-derived fuel is more like 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon — nearly twice as much.”

The price of oil per barrel has risen dramatically in the past year, and the U.S.’s dependency on foreign crude has become less stable as tensions in the Middle East have escalated with the ongoing war in Iraq and the potential confrontation with Iran. The major presidential candidates have laid out their plan of attack to dealing with the crisis, echoing many old solutions to our 21st century environmental troubles.

Sen. John McCain, for example, wants to drill off the coast of California, build dozens of nuclear plants from Oregon to Florida, and slightly increase fuel efficiency of automobiles. Similarly, Sen. Barack Obama supports an array of neoliberal strategies to deal with the country’s volatile energy situation. He is not opposed to the prospect of nuclear power, endorses capping-and-trading the coal industry’s pollution output, and supports liquefied coal.

Well, that’s a maybe on the latter.

“Senator Obama supports … investing in technology that could make coal a clean-burning source of energy,” Obama stated an email sent out by his campaign in June 2007. “However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels.”

You did not just read a lofty proclamation from a change agent, but a well-crafted rationale meant to appease green voters. Meanwhile, back in the Senate, Obama’s record relays a much different position on the subject.

It was only six months before the aforementioned email that Republican Senator Jim Bunning and Obama introduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. The bill, introduced in January 2007, was referred to the Senate committee on finance and, if passed, would ultimately amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as well as the Energy Policy and Conservation Act to evaluate the feasibility of including coal-to-oil fuels in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and provide incentives for research and plant construction.

Shortly after the introduction of the bill, Tommy Vietor, Obama’s spokesman, defended the senator’s proposal, “Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

Has Obama had a change of heart, or has he just flip-flopped around like a suffocating fish for political leverage? The answer to that question may reside along the nuanced path we are getting all too used to seeing candidate Obama traverse these days. As his campaign website reads:

“Obama will significantly increase the resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low-carbon coal technologies. Obama will consider whatever policy tools are necessary, including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities, to ensure that we move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology.”

The apartheid government of South Africa was the first to use liquid coal for motor vehicles, and it seems, despite the “low carbon coal” rhetoric, that Obama may be poised to carry on the dirty legacy of liquid coal. Sen. McCain, for what’s its worth, has also announced support for “clean coal” technology.

The move from foreign oil to locally mined coal, “low carbon” or otherwise (no coal energy has zero carbon emissions), would only change the dynamics of the U.S.’s massive energy consumption, not its habits, which is at the heart of our current energy woes.

As a result of our consumptive lifestyles, the mountaintops of Appalachia, from Tennessee up to the heart of West Virginia, are being ravaged by the coal industry — an industry that cares little about the welfare of people or the land that it is adversely affecting with its mining operations.

The waste from the holes, often 500 feet deep, produce toxic debris that is then dumped in nearby valleys, polluting rivers and poisoning local communities downstream. There has been little to no oversight of the wholesale destruction of these mountains and Obama and McCain have not addressed the ruin in any of their bullet point policy papers on “clean coal.” No state or federal agencies are tracking the cumulative effect of the aptly named “mountaintop removal,” where entire peaks are being blown apart, only to expose tiny seams of the black rock.

Any “clean coal” technology, whether it be liquidification or otherwise, would surely rely on the continuation of such brutal methods of extraction, and carbon output would still be significant. Like his Republican opponent, Obama has stayed silent on the issue of mountaintop removal. McCain’s ignorance may be for a reason, however, as the presumptive Republican nominee has received over $49,000 from the coal industry this election cycle compared to Obama’s meager $12,000, which makes Obama’s green coal embrace all the more bewildering.

Sen. Obama may receive high marks from the League of Conservation Voters and be touted by the Sierra Club for being marginally better than John McCain on the environment, but when it comes to his position on the U.S.’s coal extracting future, the senator’s position is not only wrong, it is absolutely disastrous.

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.

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  1. Donald Hawkins said on August 1st, 2008 at 9:57am #

    “Major Discovery” From MIT Primed to Unleash Solar Revolution
    Thursday 31 July 2008
    by: Anne Trafton, MIT News

    MIT’s Professor Daniel G. Nocera has discovered a way to do large-scale solar power generation. (Photo: Donna Coveney)
    Scientists mimic essence of plants’ energy storage system.
    In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine.
    Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today’s announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.
    Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”
    Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.
    The key component in Nocera and Kanan’s new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity – whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source – runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.
    Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.
    The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it’s easy to set up, Nocera said. “That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” he said.
    “Giant Leap” for Clean Energy
    Sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world’s energy problems, said Nocera. In one hour, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet’s energy needs for one year.
    James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis who was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a “giant leap” toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.
    “This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind,” said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”
    “Just the Beginning”
    Currently available electrolyzers, which split water with electricity and are often used industrially, are not suited for artificial photosynthesis because they are very expensive and require a highly basic (non-benign) environment that has little to do with the conditions under which photosynthesis operates.
    More engineering work needs to be done to integrate the new scientific discovery into existing photovoltaic systems, but Nocera said he is confident that such systems will become a reality.
    “This is just the beginning,” said Nocera, principal investigator for the Solar Revolution Project funded by the Chesonis Family Foundation and co-Director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center. “The scientific community is really going to run with this.”
    Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.
    The project is part of the MIT Energy Initiative, a program designed to help transform the global energy system to meet the needs of the future and to help build a bridge to that future by improving today’s energy systems. MITEI Director Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, noted that “this discovery in the Nocera lab demonstrates that moving up the transformation of our energy supply system to one based on renewables will depend heavily on frontier basic science.”
    The success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources – governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

    This is the very reason James Hansen said research and fast and as we know the money and the focus for research is not there, why? Fossil fuels are dirty that’s just the way it is. If we don’t see major funding for research next year no matter what the state of the economy it’s camp out time in front of the Capital none stop. Just a thought

  2. Michael Kenny said on August 1st, 2008 at 1:43pm #

    Don’t underestimate coal. With modern filters, a lot of the pollution can be kept out of the atmosphere. And opencast mining is not the only way of obtaining it. Whatever may be the American situation, Europe still has a lot of coal (Ukraine and Russia in particular) and very little opencast mining. The ecomomics of oil suddenly makes that quite interesting.

    By the way, liquid coal was not first used in South Africa, it was used in Europe in WWII, when oil for civilian transport was hard to come by. It wrecked the engines of vehicles built to run on oil, but if the engines were built for it, I don’t see why it couldn’t work.

  3. Richard Posner said on August 1st, 2008 at 5:52pm #

    Mr. Kenny. Did you not read the post above yours? Even without this bit of progress, if in fact it is real, the present state of photovoltaic technology is adequate to meet the energy demands of the world. Combined with wind and limited geothermal it is beyond adequate for the foreseeable future. The only thing preventing such a transition is the obstructionism of corporate fascism.
    Beyond further enriching psychopathic fascist capitalists, what possible purpose could there be to continue raping the Earth and destroying our own life support system? Who, by the way, gives a rats’ ass where liquid coal was first used. It’s entirely irrelevant.

  4. Richard Posner said on August 1st, 2008 at 5:52pm #

    Mr. Kenny. Did you not read the post above yours? Even without this bit of progress, if in fact it is real, the present state of photovoltaic technology is adequate to meet the energy demands of the world. Combined with wind and limited geothermal it is beyond adequate for the foreseeable future. The only thing preventing such a transition is the obstructionism of corporate fascism.
    Beyond further enriching psychopathic fascist capitalists, what possible purpose could there be to continue raping the Earth and destroying our own life support system? Who, by the way, gives a rats’ ass where liquid coal was first used? It’s entirely irrelevant.

  5. Richard Posner said on August 1st, 2008 at 5:56pm #

    Accidental double click. My apologies.

  6. Richard Posner said on August 1st, 2008 at 6:01pm #

    Confirming the post by Donald Hawkins.

    “Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class.”
    –Al Capone

  7. Deadbeat said on August 1st, 2008 at 6:18pm #

    Thanks for posting the link. This is a major breakthrough for photovoltaic technology.

  8. Donald Hawkins said on August 2nd, 2008 at 6:19am #

    And it is this kind of major breakthrough that they will try to slowdown or stop and that thinking will take us all into the darkside and who is they well people who need there head examined and I am going to keep doing just that.

  9. Donald Hawkins said on August 2nd, 2008 at 7:24am #

    Mike Whitney and his last article a few down from this one is he right? It sure looks like it. If the economy’s Worldwide go South and go South in a big way there will be a push by these so called elites to bring it back anyway they can and that means fossil fuels these so called elites are not good at making hard choices they are lazy and let other people do the work. To make a try at this is not going to be easy far from it and it can be done but will take total focus on many different levels.

    “You must unlearn what you have learned.” “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will…”

    Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.

    “You will know (the good from the bad) when you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. ” Yoda

    To me that is a good way to look at the problems we all now face. Now is the time we will not get a second chance. Just look at the infrastructure in this country it is falling apart and why because it’s about the money the system is broken and I watched the Senate on c-span the last few day’s and that is very easy to see along with grade school thinking. The infrastructure will not amount to a hill of beans if climate change goes beyond a certain point. Now is the time. Let’s just look at a few of these so called elites Bush and company. These people get the best information around and do the know how serious climate change is and what it means to every human on this Planet? Of course they do and yet these people have tried and succeeded in keeping the truth from getting out and done all they can to stop any progress on new energy, why. Well because they don’t give a dam and it looks like going out in style is the name of the game and the hell with the rest of us or my kids and there’s. The time is now.

  10. Corey said on August 3rd, 2008 at 11:50pm #

    Only a fool would vote for Mccain, enough said.

    It’s a shame that Powell never ran 🙁