Air Force prod aids coal-to-fuel plans

Monday, March 24, 2008

From an Associated Press article by Matthew Brown in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. (AP) -- On a wind-swept air base near the Missouri River, the Air Force has launched an ambitious plan to wean itself from foreign oil by turning to a new and unlikely source: coal.

The Air Force wants to build at its Malmstrom base in central Montana the first piece of what it hopes will be a nationwide network of facilities that would convert domestic coal into cleaner-burning synthetic fuel.

Air Force officials said the plants could help neutralize a national security threat by tapping into the country's abundant coal reserves. And by offering itself as a partner in the Malmstrom plant, the Air Force hopes to prod Wall Street investors - nervous over coal's role in climate change - to sink money into similar plants nationwide.

"We're going to be burning fossil fuels for a long time, and there's three times as much coal in the ground as there are oil reserves," said Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson. "Guess what? We're going to burn coal."

Tempering that vision, analysts say, is the astronomical cost of coal-to-liquids plants. Their high price tag, up to $5 billion apiece, would be hard to justify if oil prices were to drop. In addition, coal has drawn wide opposition on Capitol Hill, where some leading lawmakers reject claims it can be transformed into a clean fuel. Without emissions controls, experts say coal-to-liquids plants could churn out double the greenhouse gases as oil.