Hydrocarbon brothers duke it out

It's Cleaner Gas vs. Cheaper Coal

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Energy and politics is always a volatile mix.

The competition between coal and natural gas lately has taken on aspects of a political campaign, complete with charges, counter charges, big spending and a little old-fashioned mud slinging.

The prize: becoming the resource of choice for the next phase of the United States' energy future.

Big bucks have been spent in efforts to sway the public on the question of whether to build coal- or gas-fueled power plants. Full-page newspaper ads, high-profile interviews and Internet writings tout the virtues of natural gas and highlight the challenges of making coal a clean-burning fuel.

And then there's natural gas proponent Denise Bode, who opened a seam of controversy recently when she wrote in her Internet blog that government research dollars would be better spent on finding and producing gas than on developing clean coal technology.

Bode, CEO of the American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF), a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to advancing the use of natural gas, applauded the U.S. Department of Energy's decision to pull out of FutureGen, a $1.8 billion public-private project to design and build a near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant.

She went on to criticize President George W. Bush's proposed budget for including $156 million for FutureGen, $85 million for a "Clean Coal Power Initiative" and $407 million for advanced coal research.

National Mining Association President Kraig Naasz called Bode's criticisms "simply perverse."

Firing back in a widely distributed letter to Bode, Naasz chastised Bode, Clean Skies and Chesapeake Energy for "denigrating competing fuels" instead of promoting the positive aspects of their own resource.

Clean Skies was founded by Chesapeake founder, president and CEO Aubrey McClendon, who serves as the foundation's president and chairman.

In a telephone interview from NMA's Washington headquarters, Naasz said more recent Chesapeake ads "are now void of the language we found objectionable."

In her blog, Bode responded to Naasz' letter, defended her earlier statements and said she would welcome a chance to meet with Naasz and discuss energy and environmental issues. (Repeated requests for an interview with Bode were unsuccessful.)

A Bigger Pie?

Others have taken government and coal interests to the woodshed over the billions being spent to develop clean coal technology when, they say, a clean-burning alternative is already here.

Writing in the ACSF journal, "American Clean Skies," GHK founder and AAPG member Robert Hefner III said, "'Clean coal' must be seen as nothing more than a dirty trick used by a 19th-century industry willing to do almost anything to keep from going out of business."

In a Newsweek interview, Hefner advocated taxing coal and oil as major producers of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Naasz said that instead of jockeying for industry specific subsidies and tax break, energy industries should "identify the challenges and lock arms.

"Instead of fighting over slices of the pie, we should grow the size of the pie," he said. "The nation is going to need access to all available fuels - coal, natural gas, nuclear."

"Traditionally, Congress dedicates funding to one or the other fuel source," said Carol Raulston, NMA vice president for communications.

Amid talk of "energy independence," both sides boast of abundant domestic resources.

"We have a 250-year supply of coal in this nation - more than the Mideast has oil," Naasz said.

Domestic natural gas production and reserve estimates keep going up as new techniques unlock previously unrecoverable shale plays.

Not only is the United States coal-rich, it has the largest resource of oil shale in the world, according to various government and industry estimates.

A Few Challenges

Coal faces myriad environmental challenges, from "mountaintop mining" and land reclamation to air pollution from burning the fuel.

Newer coal plants handle most of the pollutants efficiently, but large quantities of CO2, a greenhouse gas, produced by burning coal remain a bugaboo.

Natural gas produces about half the CO2 that coal does.

While there are markets for CO2, such as enhanced oil recovery efforts, the supply outstrips demand, Raulston said.

"The real effort is to increase the efficiency of plants," she said. "A 1 percent increase in efficiency equals a reduction of 2.5 tons of CO2 emissions."

"Coal power is cleaner than it's ever been," Naasz said.

"There has been a 70 percent reduction in emissions over the last 30 years ... and a coal plant built today is 90 percent cleaner than the one it replaces," he said.

"CO2 capture and storage capability is a technology that addresses greenhouse emissions," he said.

This "sequestration" process involves chilling the carbon dioxide to a critical liquid state, then injecting it into a geological formation for storage.

Hefner, in the ACSF journal, said, "It seems logical to plan plants around natural gas power, and start with half the CO2 before sequestering ever begins."

Coal supplies about 50 percent of U.S. electricity; natural gas generates about 25 percent.

U.S. demand for electricity is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2030, and Naasz said coal's share is expected to grow 57 percent.

Needed: Energy Literacy

As America's power needs expand, proponents of both fuels hope to position their industries to take advantage of the swelling market.

And both industries would like to become the option of choice as the push to wean American transportation away from gasoline gathers steam.

For coal enthusiasts, gasification and liquification are buzzwords of the moment.

"China is investing heavily in these areas," Naasz said. "South Africa meets 30 percent of its fuel needs" by converting coal to diesel.

The U.S. Air Force is working to make all its aircraft capable of burning coal-source fuel, he added.

Gasification currently is aimed primarily at feedstock and production, he said, and "a number of developers here are trying to get the technologies off the ground."

But some natural gas folk have their own views.

At a February forum on America's Energy Future in Houston, McClendon called coal-to-liquids technology expensive, difficult and unnecessary, according to the Houston Chronicle.

"That's why no one else is doing it. No one is coalifying gas - they're gasifying coal," McClendon said. "I don't understand the need to go through this dirty process to make it clean."

Natural gas produces 25 percent less CO2 than gasoline, and wider transportation use would help reduce both emissions and oil imports, Hefner said.

Hefner reels off other pluses for natural gas:

  • It is a proven technology, powering some five million vehicles worldwide.
  • It is available now, with about 63 million U.S. homes and most gasoline filling stations already connected to a million-mile gas pipeline grid. Compressors are on the market to allow home fueling.
  • Conversion to a natural gas vehicle is often cheaper than trading up to most hybrid vehicles.
  • Because it is composed of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms, it is a natural transition fuel to an even cleaner hydrogen economy.

With such a squeaky clean energy future decades away and demand still growing, no one is likely to pack their tent and leave years of resources in the ground and billions invested in infrastructure and technology on the surface.

"The deficit of energy literacy among the American public ... must be improved," Naasz said.

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