From a purely martial perspective, the strategic benefits of this plan are obvious: The U.S. would use far less oil imported from countries it doesn’t get along with. But there are problems, like the fact that the plan could generate twice the carbon dioxide emissions of current fuels—making it, thanks to a special clause in the 2007 energy bill, illegal.
CTL proponents, aware that coal has an image problem, fend off criticism by saying that the fuel is actually “greener” than jet fuel made from petroleum. What they mean is that during the gasification process, jet fuel from coal is scrubbed clean of particulate emissions as well as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—the stuff that causes acid rain—so it is in one sense cleaner to burn. But that leaves out a crucial bit of information: Between mining the coal and burning the resulting jet fuel, coal-to-liquids fuel produces twice as much CO2 as the existing petroleum-derived fuel. The potential effect of creating a market for CTL fuels is frightening enough to environmentalists that last year Representative Henry Waxman, who now heads the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, added a clause to the 2007 energy bill—Section 526—forbidding the U.S. government from spending taxpayer money on fuels that emit more greenhouse gases than the fuels we’re already using.
That hasn’t stopped the Air Force from moving ahead with its plan—it simply says that the companies that produce the fuel will have to figure out a way to comply with Section 526. So while lobbyists for both the coal and petroleum industries work aggressively to get Section 526 repealed, potential CTL suppliers are looking into technology that could, theoretically, clean coal-based jet fuel enough that it’s the greenhouse-gas equivalent of petroleum.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.