Brian Schweitzer replies

In a DailyKos diary, Jerome a Paris (who focuses on energy issues) took on Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's recent New York Times op-ed about making synthetic fuels from coal using the Fischer-Tropsch process. Jerome had some probing questions for the governor, and today, Schweitzer responded to Jerome in his own diary. He doesn't exactly answer Jerome's actual specific questions, but he seems to be taking people's concerns seriously.
Some of the highlights of Schweitzer's claims include:
  • Water needs, traditionally an enormous hurdle, have been all but eliminated with the advent of a process that actually produces water with its excess hydrogen and oxygen.
  • Carbon emissions are a particularly important consideration, because unchecked resource exploitation will destabilize our planet. But, the elements not used in hydrocarbon synthesis are sequestered, making the production and combustion of synfuel remarkably carbon-free.
  • While solid wastes are a concern, it is certainly better to sequester these toxins, and sell or dispose of them in a controlled manner, than to release them into air and water as is done now.
The first thing required of a fair analysis of any alternative to petroleum is an understanding that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect any one source to take its place.  We are going to have to throw everything we have into this effort, in as responsible a manner as possible.  But it was for-ordained that we will turn to coal to a degree.  It is up to us that we do it in as benign a manner as possible.  Realistically there will be production constraints that will only allow it to be a rather small piece of the puzzle, but again, we are going to need every piece.  But we shouldn't kid ourselves that this move represents progress.

Watch the history channel some night and catch one of their mind numbingly repetitive documentaries about the Second World War and the end of Hitler's Third Reich.  It is always pointed out that with the loss of North Africa and all other access to oil, Germany was reduced to synthetic fuel from coal.  It is always pointed out in a somewhat fatalistic tone..."the end was inevitable..."

Turning to coal is not a mark of progress it is a mark of desperation.  It is a measure of how poorly we have planned for a transition away from petroleum.  It is a band-aide approach to maintaining the status quo when it is no longer sustainable.  But right now, because of a lack of planning, we need that bandaid, or rather a whole box of assorted band-aides.

I posted a couple of comments to that effect over there.  The problem is that there is a perception that the public just wants to be told that life can go on the same as before, so politicians may be afraid to tell people that things must change.

It would be interesting to know what he privately thinks about all of this - does he really believe it all, or does he have a  plan that is more realistic that he isn't willing to articulate in public right now.

Thank God for the media... oh shit.. never mind. :(
My reaction to Schweitzer's claims is only this:

Somewhere I dug up numbers that seem to state that all current daily coal production would be the equivalent 10 million barrels of crude oil. I'm afraid I can not find that link anymore though...

Since we have "250 years worth" of coal (Whatever that figure means..), and we need 85 million barrels of crude we need to scale up coal production about 9 1/2 times. Now if we were to use *only* coal that would mean we'd have 25 years worth of coal. Obviously there is still oil available after peakoil, so this is not a realistic scenario, but it gives you an idea.

But there is another thing: After natural gas peaks, locally or globally, coal production needs to be ramped up as well for the production of electricity.

Well, that bit about all of our coal production is only worth 10 million barrels a day of crude would be true if we were still distilling coal oil out of coal in coke ovens circa 1850...
But no, the coal production only has to go up about half to completely zero out imports of oil and also replace depletion in the US.
About five years of work and we will have rebuilt our industrial base from steel to oil and everything else in between. Five years of making do with old computers and television sets and wearing clothes till they wear out. Five years of living a McDonald's workers existence for middle class people while the McDonald's workers get middle class jobs working in strip mines and steel mills and other good jobs at good wages.
Just think of it as a trip back to 1973 for the lower class, and the middle class, and the rich.
A quick back off the envelope calculation suggests that the current US coal production (responsible for roughly 20% of the US energy consumption vs. approx. 40% for oil) is indeed equivalent to about half of the oil consumption in the US.  Thus 10 million barrel/day sounds quite right to me. The actual number would be probably lower due to conversion losses. Does anybody has the EROEI numbers for Fischer-Tropsch?
Waldi's right, I'm wrong. I was remembering the graph for electric power sources where coal was as important as everything else put together, not the graph for coal as an energy source.
We would have to mine twice as much coal to replace oil imports. Also, since coal is CH and oil is CH2 you get a lot of byproduct CO from the H2 production, so you burn that in gas turbines (after you clean it, just like you clean H2S out of gas) and that is what we will use to replace gas production as it declines.
I should have remembered that.
I don't know the EROI but I can guesstimate a greenhouse intensity figure.  Choren Industries say their SunFuel is 10%  as greenhouse intensive as petroleum diesel.  Princeton University give a range of figures for FT diesel from coal with the middle value about 150% of petrodiesel. If my arithmetic is correct that means FT diesel from coal is about 15 times more net GHG intensive than from biomass, assuming no CO2 capture.  I think a carbon tax would be good insurance to  ensure coal-to-liquids producers stayed 'clean'.
5 years? Isn't that quite optimistic? China started building a single 50000 bpd coal liquification factory (which is an enormous project itself) in 2003 and expect it to be operational in 2007 or 2008. So for a single factory they need 5 years, given that they didn't need to expand their coal production to feed it.
What process is the governor talking about? The Fischer-Tropsch process initially involves reacting coal with water and air or oxygen to produce synthesis gas. Coal is deficient in hydrogen compared with liquid fuels. Any process that converts coal to liquid fuel must involve either adding hydrogen or removing carbon. Removing substantial carbon
greatly lowers the yield and any added hydrogen must come from somewhere. Unless he is considering hydrogen rich natural gas, of which there is already a shortage, this must come from water as in the original Fischer-Tropsch process.

Has anyone any idea what this process is that hydrogenates coal and generates not uses water?  

To be picky the Fischer-Tropsh process involves building mostly straight chain alkanes to get a diesel fuel from methane or syngas.  The SASOL type of F-T has a front end of coal gasifiers and water shift reactors, and the process does require water as an input.  He kinda danced around the water requirement question.
He didn't dance around it, he told an outright falsehood about it (though his chemistry is probably so rusty I bet it was  an honest misunderstanding rather than a lie).  Any process which takes in mostly pure carbon and emits hydrocarbons is going to get hydrogen from somewhere.  That somewhere is not going to be its own byproducts.

A coal-to-liquids plant which uses no water but has a large waste stream of boron-11 would cause as many problems as it solved (as remarkable as it might be). ;-)

I didn't say it was a good dance.  Anyway, the west end of Montana is about 500 mi from the sea.  A 24" sea water pipeline to the gasification plants could be put in for maybe 600 million (at $10/diameter in-ft).  Expensive, but the plants are already multi-billion dollar affairs.
Much of the coal reserve in Montana is in the east end of the state, with extensions into the Dakotas. The site most often discussed for a pilot plant is in the southeast part of the state. From Broadus, one of the locations frequently mentioned, to Duluth at the tip of Lake Superior is 650 miles. Probably less total length, but more importantly in my mind, much less vertical distance (only about 2300 feet) and fresh water so there's no problem disposing of all that salt. My real concern would be EROEI -- pumping water >600 miles for feedstock has to hurt numbers that aren't terrific to start with.
The trouble with using the Great Lakes is that there is only about 1% excess water accumulation in the system; any more usage and the lake levels will start to fall.  I'm just guessing, but with the current drought, any Great Lakes water released would probably go to potable supplies.
"Water needs, traditionally an enormous hurdle, have been all but eliminated with the advent of a process that actually produces water with its excess hydrogen and oxygen.

Danced?  Misrepresented is more like it.  Coal doesn't have much hydrogen in it.  The hydrogen has to come from somewhere and water's the usual suspect.  It's not hard to produce water from "excess hydrogen and oxygen."  Light a match.  It IS hard to understand where the source of the excess.  This claim needs a lot of attention.

If he's claiming that the water is generated when the fuel is finally burned then I'd say that's gross misrepresentation. F-T still requires water in situ to make the fuel and the water released is far away and unrecoverable.

The other possibility, even more disturbing, is that the "excess" hydrogen comes from natural gas.  I don't think there are any other candidates.

Thanks OilDrum and your contributors for having a forum where informed discussion can be found.  I took a look at the Governor's post which was very interesting and should be the basis for a great discussion.  However there were almost 300 comments most of which was just noise.  The dozen posts in this forum contain more valuable info than that Tower of Babel.  Wouldn't it be great if we can get the Governor and his staff to contribute and participate in this forum?
Okay, this is something I know a lot about.  Here are some facts about the process which are probably not gonna show up in Google searches.

1.  Water:  Depending of the C:H ratio of coal, the F-T process may be net consumer or a net producer of water.  If it has hardly any hydrogen (Antracite coal), the overall equation is:  

C + H2O --> -(-CH2-)- + CO2  

Here, -(-CH2-)- is the "polymethylene" F-T diesel fuel (n-paraffins).  On the other extreme if you have a hydrocarbon feedstock with a low C:H ratio, F-T will be a net water producer.  Consider the methane case:  

CH4 + 1/2 O2 --> -(-CH2-)- + H2O

Water by itself is not the issue.  It's the expense of vaporizing it, which is what make the coal based F-T inherently less efficient than methane (nat'l gas) versions-- which brings us to the next major point.

2.  Thermal efficiency:  The efficiency of F-T process (Btu out / Btu in) is in the 60-66% range.  It's just thermodynamics.  We can look at it as the price we pay for converting a solid (or gas) fuel into a more transportable liquid fuel.  One could even make the case that this will pay for itself (e.g. cost of transporting the coal to power plants, etc.).

Despite all its shortcomings, F-T is the only synthetic fuel technology practiced today (four plants in the world, three making fuels).  If the peak in crude oil is in five years or less, there is no time for any R&D.  There is only time to build F-T plants.  Although I am the last person to support a Republican governor, in this case he is right!

Oh yeah, one more thing:  the comments by the blogger on Ni, Mo, Co, Al, catalyst disposal is silly.  The oil refineries today handle all of the catalysts that F-T plants would use (and a whole lot more).