The congressional initiative to take coal and transform it into a liquid that serves to replace various fuels is going to have a hard time. Coalescing as fighting camps are (l) a public that says we have to devise a means of producing energy without dependence on the Persian Gulf, and (2) a public that says that the coal-based alternative being offered neglects the superordinate demands of our country and of our planet.
Now, narrowly measured, there is a problem that of course magnifies as the scale increases. It pays to remind ourselves that the conversion process was tested long ago. The Nazis used a coal-derived substance to fuel many of their submarines, and the South Africans used it to get around the boycott of oil we imposed against the apartheid regime.
What is now proposed is conversion on a huge scale. Many inducements are required to justify the capital expenditures needed to turn coal into liquid energy. One that catches the eye is the proposed purchase of 1 billion gallons of the new fuel by the Air Force, guaranteed for 25 years. Another proposal would have the government provide support to the first six coal-based plants if the price of oil should drop to less than $40 per barrel.
But for every inducement to go in that direction is a counterproposal to protect against the effects of burning the new fuel, releasing millions of tons of toxic effluents. The coal lobby insists that it has the research necessary to detoxify the new fuel, but the Green lobby is entirely skeptical of such protestations, and the fight goes on.
It isn't one that can be settled as easily as by doing nothing, because we need tons of fuel every day and the supply is limited. The problem is one not only of supply, but of access. Saudi Arabia has more than 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which is not the same thing as to assume that its oil can be counted on to fulfill U.S. demands. The reasons are obvious. We are having a substantial problem maintaining some 146,000 troops in Iraq. We cannot reasonably count on tranquilizing the entire Gulf area for the requirements of our industry.
And the problem extends beyond even the diminishing supply of oil. The 2004 British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy gave the most optimistic projection in sight, predicting that global oil reserves will be entirely depleted by 2045 based on known reserves and current rates of consumption. By the same measure, U.S. reserves would be exhausted in 2015.