An open letter to Rep. Buchanan: Be a leader, sir, on coal liquefaction

 
 

Dear Rep. Buchanan:

My view of your responsibilities as an elected government official revolve around your doing what is best for the district or for the nation — not necessarily in that order. Therefore, I am suggesting that you get out in front on the impending energy crisis in this country — particularly in light of the Gulf of Mexico spill — and become a vocal advocate in Washington, D.C., for a nationwide program for coal-to-liquids production.

At the present time, this country has exactly zero coal-to-liquids plants, and I perceive none is being planned. There is one synthetic coal-to-gas plant in Beulah, N.D.

The technology for CTL has been known for 85 years (Fischer-Tropsch process). Germany had 25 liquefaction plants during World War II, producing 124,000 barrels daily that met 90% of the nation’s need.

South Africa has a plant producing roughly 160,000 barrels daily of zero-sulfur diesel and gasoline. The cost is about $35 per barrel versus $80-plus now for oil from Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. That nearly rivals the energy cost of natural gas, which is currently about $23 to $25 per barrel energy-equivalent.

This nation has roughly 250 billion tons of recoverable coal (equivalent to 800 billion barrels of oil — three times the published “reserves” of Saudi Arabia). The location and quantity of coal reserves are known and mapped — no exploration necessary. It would create long-term manufacturing jobs and reduce our long-term dependence on foreign oil.

The cost of a plant is about $70,000 per barrel per day capacity and construction time could be five to seven years, including the permitting process. All that could be reduced by executive decree on a Manhattan-type project if we really wanted to get our butts in gear.

A by-product of the Fischer-Tropsch process is carbon dioxide, the big bugaboo for those who believe this little molecule has an effect on climate change. Actually, this can be a good thing. The plants can be built near our known and largely depleted oil fields, and the CO2 could be sequestered and injected directly into the depleted oil reservoirs, thereby recovering an additional 15% to 20% of the original oil-in-place. That carbon dioxide oil-field recovery process has been practiced for years in west Texas, and the technology is well-known.

This would produce a double whammy, Rep. Buchanan, not a bugaboo.

The U.S. government has had a 30-year Fischer-Topsch research project effort ongoing, which resulted in improved processes, catalysts and reactors. Because of the lack of leadership in this country, however,
China now has a lead on the United States in this regard. China is planning a $6 billion investment in plants that would produce 440 million barrels of liquid fuel annually. That is a month’s supply of oil imports for this country. Isn’t it about time we pursued this source of energy?

Of course, the United States lacks elected-official leadership in energy-related matters. That’s where you come in: Get with the coal-to-liquids experts in the Department of Energy, and get out in front. You have a bully pulpit. Use it. Please.

Construction of CTL plants could be expedited with incentives — expedited permitting; federal-loan guarantees; mandated price floors; tax credits (as were used to bring foreign automobile plants into this country); fuel excise tax exemptions; and accelerated depreciation.

The national need beckons, Mr. Congressman. Please become a leader. Calmly raise hell and national awareness. Get something going. For my kids’ and grandkids’ sake.

Weldon Frost is a retired petroleum geologist who spent 37 years with Mobil Oil in Texas, Venezuela, Libya, Turkey, French West Africa, New York, Paris, Indonesia, New Orleans and London (North Sea). He retired in 1989 to Longboat Key.

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