Coal to liquid projects have uphill climb

Apr 19, 2013

Over the years, many researchers have looked at a variety of research and economic development projects using Wyoming coal.  The idea is to open up new markets for it and to make it more viable for businesses and the public to use.  Much of this has surrounded coal gasification.   There has been a belief that coal could be used as a form of liquid fuel.  That was especially useful when oil supplies appeared limited in the United States…but as the country entered a technology revolution and opened up more resources…the interest dropped.  Experts say that the other reason interest has waned is because these projects never work out.  Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports…          

GERRY MEYER:  You understand I think coal to liquids is a shlock deal.  It is…it will never fly. 

BOB BECK:  That’s University of Wyoming emeritus Professor E.G. Gerry Meyer.  Meyer has done plenty of coal research over the years…but he says efforts like the DKRW coal to gas proposal for Carbon County will never get anywhere.  DKRW is the most recent effort at turning coal into liquid fuel.   Meyer says such projects are very capitol intensive to produce something that cheaper oil and natural gas can already be used for.  He says when you then realize that you also need to deal with the C-O-2 that’s produced, it can get very expensive.

MEYER:  So when you add up the whole thing you understand you need two plants which represents a large capitol investment…when you understand that the process is not efficient , you ask yourself does this really make sense and the answer is no.  

BECK:  Another longtime University of Wyoming Professor who’s studied coal to liquids efforts is Harold Bergman.  Bergman says Wyoming actually was  heavily involved with coal to liquids efforts in the 70’s…when the country was dealing with the oil embargo.  But he says the plants at the time found out that there was a lot of liquid waste created from those efforts…which was problematic.  And when the oil crisis ended…so did the interest in coal to gasoline.  Various other coal experiments were floated through the years.  In the 90’s as a member of the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council and later as head of the Ruckelshaus Institute on Environmental and Natural Resources, Bergman saw a number of coal projects come and go.

HAROLD BERGMAN:  These coal gasification, liquefaction, and oil shale retarding operations all collapsed because of cost.

BECK:  Ben Avery of the Wyoming Business Council says most of the efforts to liquefy coal either came from researchers, non-coal companies, or the federal government.  But when the research is finished…the projects come to an end…

BEN AVERY:  I’ve yet to see a business plan on one of these coal to liquids facilities.

BECK:  Avery says the same goes for other value added coal projects.  

AVERY:  We’ve got companies interested in doing that underground coal gasification, capturing the CO-2 and doing that for enhanced oil recovery, using that CO-2 for enhanced oil recovery.  It seems to be potentially less capitol intensive costs than coal to liquids.

BECK:  Whether that amounts to anything remains to be seen, but the intentions are there.  Professor Bergman says diversifying Wyoming’s economy and finding new ways to try to save what is becoming a declining coal market is a reason for it, but still a bad idea.  He says research dollars can be better spent elsewhere.

BERGMAN:  The DKRW or other coal to liquids, or coal to gas operations seem to me to be environmentally and economically foolhardy to the extreme.

BECK:  While some point out that South Africa has had success with such projects, Bergman notes that it came at a time when South Africa was cut off from the rest of the world and needed coal to liquids for fuel.  As for those looking at ways to use U-S coal differently in the current market Bergman is skeptical.

BERGMAN:  Now there is so much cheap gas in the world because of the production of gas from fracking…that even to make plastics or some other product out of coal…it’s still going to be way way cheaper to just use natural gas. 

BECK:  As mentioned earlier, U-W Emeritus Professor Gerry Meyer does believe that some coal research makes sense and he’s in favor of efforts to break up the molecules in coal and use it for commerce.  Meyer says if you want to do something new with coal….this is the best approach….

MEYER:  We will use coal as it should be used…as a raw material…to produce chemicals and char.  Char is another form of carbon; it can be used not only as a fuel and as an absorbent in such things as gas masks and in reducing pollutants. 

BECK:  One last point about all these coal research efforts…very few of these ideas are coming from those directly involved in the coal industry.  Meyer notes that coal companies do not have the research teams that oil companies employ.  While researchers and others look at doing new things with coal…he says coal companies are quote “dig it and ship it guys.”