Yesterday's New York Times business section featured a lengthy article on turning coal into synthetic gas or liquid fuels, as an alternative to importing more foreign oil and gas. It highlights a company called Rentech, whose technology for coal-to-liquids is an update of the old Fischer-Tropsch process, which supplied Germany with synthetic fuel during World War II. There's great potential in this process, particularly with oil prices so high and coal prices relatively lower. The article properly identifies the problem of managing the large greenhouse gas emissions inherent in this approach, but as I so often find in such pieces, it's more interesting for what it fails to mention that for what it includes.
The issue is fairly simple, though I've rarely seen it articulated in popular articles on alternative energy. It's wonderful that we have a widening array of choices for creating alternatives to conventional--which increasingly means imported--oil and gas. But when we look at the environmental consequences of producing synthetic gasoline or diesel fuel from coal or oil sands, we ought to compare them not just to other alternative energy processes, many of which have their own challenges in scaling up or avoiding unintended consequences, as this recent piece on ethanol reminds us. We also need to compare them to the simpler alternative of expanding the areas available to the industry for drilling conventional domestic oil and gas.
I know that offshore drilling is a hot-button issue. There's been a flurry of legislation trying to address it, and our best available compromise may be to treat drilling for non-associated natural gas differently from that for oil, thus avoiding at least some of the problems generating opposition. But however you view the drawbacks of offshore oil or gas drilling, whether from pollution risks to water, beaches, or "viewscapes," it's hard to see that they are worse than the consequences of producing the same amount of energy by turning additional surface-minded coal into gasoline. The biggest difference appears to be that the latter occurs somewhere in the heartland, while the former affects upscale beach communities. I'm not big on "environmental justice" as an issue, but the situation above seems like a classic example.
In the long run, I believe we'll need a significant contribution from every energy option now on the table, including LNG, gas-to-liquids, coal-to-liquids, oil sands, ethanol (preferably cellulosic,) wind, solar and advanced nuclear power. What's really at stake is the future energy mix and its overall environmental impact. As new options ramp up, though, we can't afford to be obtuse about how we compare them to the default option of increasing supplies from conventional sources by altering boundary lines that were drawn for social and political reasons. While we can't drill our way to independence, the downside of producing oil and gas reserves from areas currently off-limits looks lower than that of some of the alternatives we're considering.