Stealth Coal: Like it or lump it

Oil and gas major ConocoPhilips and coal giant Peabody Energy applied for a permit yesterday to build a plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky to turn coal into synthetic natural gas. What interests me are not so much the details of their project but the fact that it's just one more example of what a longtime source of mine, Gasification Technologies Council CEO Jim Childress, calls stealth coal.

Childress uttered this colorful term while I was interviewing him on Chinese versus U.S. developments in coal gasification for power generation using integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC technology. ('Combined cycle' because it uses a gas turbine to generate power from expanding combustion gases plus a steam turbine that generates power from the heat released.) My conclusion, reported today for MIT Technology Review in China Closes the Clean-Coal Gap, is that climate concerns have paralyzed IGCC projects in the U.S. whereas air quality concerns are helping push Chinese projects forward.

Stealth coal figures in Childress' argument that neglect of IGCC technology in the U.S. does not mean we're through with generating electricity from coal. To the contrary. As utilities turn to natural gas for more and more of their baseload power generation, they will drive demand for gas beyond what drilling can deliver. Childress predicts that coal-to-gas plants such as the ConocoPhillips-Peabody Energy project will keep the gas-fired plants running:

Right now coal plants in the planning stages are stopped dead in their tracks and the default fuel is natural gas. So we're looking at a tightening of the natural gas market and that's good news for coal gasification. It may not go [directly] to power but it will substitute for natural gas.

To my ear the word stealth makes coal-derived synthetic gas sound kind of sinister but its climate impact could be negligible according to a University of Kentucky study cited yesterday by Green Car Congress. Visual thinkers may prefer this report by Fox News on Dakota Gasification, the synthetic gas operation that pioneered carbon capture and storage in the U.S. (I'd send you to CNN, but they just axed their entire science, environment and technology team.)

Of course, one should also consider the environmental costs of coal mining. In October Energywise highlighted the upstream impacts of mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia.

Yesterday Kentucky's governor Steve Beshear focused instead on coal development's economic impact -- about 1,000 construction jobs and 200 full time jobs for a $1 billion plant according to a Louisville Courier-Journal report. Beshear translates that into political terms in Peabody Energy's press release on their proposed gas plant: "Projects like this ... enjoy rock solid support: More than 80 percent of Kentucky residents support coal gasification."

I'm not sure about Governor Beshear's poll data, but one thing's for sure: There's nothing stealthy about his feelings for coal.

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