Monday, April 28, 2008

$55/barrel oil? Suchadeal!

The governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, posts on his website that his state is pursuing "ultra-clean coal technology" in an effort to convert coal into synthetic petroleum products or natural gas. He says that this technology has been with us for about 100 years. It involves converting goal into gas that doesn't pump tons of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. It's supposed to strip toxins like sulfur and mercury, out of the gas stream. It's also supposed to "sequester" CO2 and have it pumped underground for later use. These later uses include pumping the CO2 into depleted oil wells to drive irretrievable oil to the wellhead, a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Coal gasification is being done now in North Dakota, and the CO2 is being piped to oil fields in Canada for EOR. Much of the coal gasification work being done, however, is in South Africa.

So if the technology is so old, why isn't is more widespread today? According to a column published by CNN's Glenn Beck today, OPEC got so spooked by this potential competition that the price for a barrel of oil went down to about eight bucks, so cheap that the synthetic option was no longer economically viable. And now here we are, prisoners of foreign oil, victimized by our own government, which is busy stockpiling reserves (not a bad idea, by the way) and subsidizing corn production for the most useless substance known to man: ethanol.

I did a little online research about coal gasification, as some have written that environmental groups have lined up behind it as an alternative to burning petroleum products. Greenpeace had a study from 1999 discussing a bunch of alternative energy choices, including coal gasification, and the Sierra Club had stuff too. Essentially, what I'm reading is that, while the concept of coal gasification is neither novel nor undesirable as an alternative to fossil fuel burning, not a lot of commercial support exists for the financial burden of such systems. One study suggested that coal prices would increase 40-90% when we require coal polluters to capture their CO2 output. That report suggested a tax on polluters as the stick that gets them to spend the money, but we all know that lobbies to kill taxes are a no-brainer.

At the end of the day, we can continue to pay through the nose for petroleum, hoping the price gets more reasonable, or we can invest in new infrastructures to wean ourselves off the Canadian/Arab/Mexican/Nigerian/Venezuelan oil teat. For years, we've been arguing about this, all the while knowing that, sooner or later, $4/gallon gas would be upon us. Now it's here, and $5/gallon isn't an unreasonable next step.

Where does this all stop? I think it stops when we listen to our inner voices. The voices that quietly tell us when something needs to be done. Listening to these voices will not get the men in white coats after us; they will compel us to act. Buying smaller cars, hybrids, electrics, taking more mass transit, standing up to the agri-businesses that have hoodwinked us into thinking ethanol made sense, and electing presidents and governors and congressmen with the balls to make real changes. I like Schweitzer's chutzpah, and he puts it right on his website to show everyone where he stands (he also takes a strong stand against Real ID, which I agree with and really respect, but that's another story for another time).

As for me, I'm taking the small step of switching to a hybrid for my next car. I'm using solar for my yard lighting. I'm shutting off lights whenever I can, shutting off phantom power sources wherever possible, replacing my incandescents with compact fluorescent bulbs, recycling more than half my trash, to reduce my carbon footprint little by little. Someday it will be solar panels on my roof (or solar roofing tiles), a hydrogen fuel cell car, tankless hot water heating, etc. But taking action is my focus. Taking action is what I want to teach my sons, so that they can do the same when the responsibility is theirs.

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