Thursday, December 20, 2007

MORE ON NATIONAL ENERGY POLICY: Positive thinking, if you were in the Third Reich in 1945

George W. Bush "praised Congress for adding money in the omnibus spending package that passed Wednesday for biofuel research 'that will enable us to use wood chips and switch grass and biomass' to produce ethanol which is now made with corn in the United States," reported the Los Angeles Times newspaper on page A15 today.

Yesterday, your friendly neighborhood PhD protein chemist worked over the standard airy tripe on cellulostics cellulosics and switch grass, a revolution in fulfilling energy needs that's been coming and coming and coming but never quite arriving for at least twenty years. More accurately, you can degrade cellulose enzymatically and eventually get to ethanol but the way of protein catalysis is probably not going to result in the miraculous things science-ignorant politicians and venture capitalists have others believe.

Since GWB's speechwriter put the same crap into his statement, it's an affirmation of the appraisal. If it's something that sounds scientific or advanced and George W. Bush thinks it's good, the common sense reaction would be to look the other way and spit.

In today's Times, the "American Values and the Next President" series was continued in the opinion section.

Dealing with "the powers of the earth," it was about "environmental issues." As usual, the president and most current, but not all, Republicans have no capital to spend in this domain. Call them aggressively for global warming and doing things our way on the highway.

Mike Huckabee is a "lukewarm greenie who supports capping carbon emissions to slow global warming but gives few specifics on how to do it." On the other hand, Huckabee also believes in creationism and thought scientists didn't understand the transmission of AIDS in 1992, so even if he comes up with specifics, unless they're written by someone more technically with it, they may showcase his unique blend of ignorance and amiable sincerity.

"[Republicans] rarely like to talk about the environment, a topic that does not resonate with the party's base," writes the Times. "What the party likes to discuss is 'energy security.'"

That means, in Mitt Romney's case, going forward to the past and the worthless technology of the Third Reich, for our energy future. It means stepping on the accelerator of global warming with rationalizations about "clean coal" and the capability of Fischer-Tropsch coil-to-oil plants.

"The main solution to this problem [of energy security] from Mitt Romney is to turn coal into liquid fuel -- which would indeed promote energy independence but at a ruinous cost to the environment because [the Fischer-Tropsch process] emits twice as much greenhouse gases as gasoline."

In World War II, Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil furnished a semblance of energy independence and energy security for the Third Reich. And that turned out pretty good, right? And much later, Fischer-Tropsch furnished some energy independence for apartheid South Africa when the rest of the world had isolated it.

These are certainly fine examples of national leadership to emulate.

The Democrats, while considered green, are not particularly better than Republicans. For starters, they've rolled over for a national energy policy that suits George W. Bush and the obstructionist Republican party. And some of them -- like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- are also keen on a Fischer-Tropsch renaissance.

"On biofuels, Congress should stop imposing mandates to increase production of renewable fuels until more environmentally responsible alternatives are available," writes the Times.

"The mania for corn-based ethanol is raising food prices, polluting waterways and threatening farmlands ..."

Almost all the candidates call for more biofuels, writes the Times. And it is all about pandering to "corn-growing" Iowa.

Here's a tongue-in-cheek recommendation for better national energy policy, from someone in California: Bomb Iowa.

"[Hillary Clinton] and Barack Obama also display a disturbing openness to [coal-to-oil], tarnishing their otherwise sterling green credentials."

In strict fairness, being for Fischer-Tropsch is a stain that obliterates almost everything else, a different kind of "green" as in "bring on the greenhouse."

For Clinton and Obama, favoring coal-to-oil could simply be more pandering, a looking ahead to a presidential race in which they'd like to peel off some votes in West Virginia or the hinterland of Pennsylvania. Obama pushes Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil as dishonestly as everyone else. Calling it "clean coal," he uses it as currency in Illinois which is striving for a Fischer-Tropsch plant in Fayette County under the auspices of perversely-named Clean Coal Power Resources, Inc.

In this, Obama are Clinton are similar to Tim Holden, the Democratic Congressman representing the voters of Schuylkill County in the House. They adhere to a facet of energy policy which calls for gross greenhouse gas-producing coil-to-oil plants, something which Republicans traditionally embrace. In the county, the Fischer-Tropsch plant website lives under the domain name of, the exact opposite of what it actually is. It has spawned a taxpayer effort to stop it at

In practice, Tim Holden is a Democrat in name only. He's been an untouchable Bush Dog Democrat, enabling all Republican policies in a staunchly Republican region. It is pointless to target Holden for removal efforts because no Democrat with progressive beliefs can run in the region and win anything.

Within the voting district this is a solid tradition started by Gus Yatron, who was a long-time career representative of the region. Yatron was only in the Democratic Party by relatively meaningless designation and he passed away in 2003.

It is logical that Holden would be a booster for a Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil plant in Schuylkill County. It is a win-win-win issue for many in the area. It means some jobs and government investment, a theoretical shot at being part of a revived coal industry, one of temporary growth.

In a country surrounded by enemies, one in which leaders saw no options other than simple solutions which slightly put off a future reckoning, like the Third Reich in World War II, coal-to-oil was a hot industry.

Over forty years later, it's rebranded in the United States as "clean coal" and "coal to liquids."

Guesswork on Fischer-Tropsch and the elimination of pesky carbon dioxide

Yesterday DD went over Fischer-Tropsch plants and the large amount of carbon dioxide they can be expected to produce.

A plant projected for Schuylkill County was given an environment evaluation by the Department of Energy. DoE predicted it would generate a whopping 2.28 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

The idiot hype which has reigned over common articles on the bounty of Fischer-Tropsch waiting to be unleashed on coal reserves is that carbon dioxide can simply be sequestered underground.

Various methods have been looked at, one including fixing the carbon dioxide as a carbonate in a mineral formation. Nature does this slowly and the reaction is sluggish. And the laws of nature have resisted the blandishments of politicians and efforts to make it workable.

Other avenues of research envision injecting it deep underground into saline aquifers where, under pressure, it would theoretically break up into semi-liquid blobs which would be trapped in pores in rock. If they stayed there long enough, they might eventually wind up fixed as solid carbonates.

Most of this research has been done by computer modelling and testing on a micro scale with laboratory mock-ups. It is characterized by squirrelly-ness.

"Absence of experimental data on carbonate mineral and carbon dioxide solubility in natural brines under elevated carbon dioxide pressures makes it extremely difficult to verify modeling results, especially when considering rock/water interaction in the subsurface after injection of carbon dioxide," reads one paper entitled "Carbon Dioxide Sequestration in Saline Aquifers," with valuable honesty as it turns out, presented at a 2006 meeting of the American Geophysical Society.

"Although experimental results indicate carbon dioxide solubility estimates may be reliable, overall, it is difficult to confidently place quantitative constraints on the ultimate sequestration capacity of deep saline aquifers," it concludes.

Here is a contraption for observing the behavior of carbon dioxide under pressure produced by the US Geophysical Service. It explains the science and rationale, maybe a little too optimistically. The casual reader will notice the quantities being worked with in the lab in the tightly controlled experimental apparatus do not have much corollary with what would be a working Fischer-Tropsch plant producing two and a quarter million tons of carbon dioxide per year in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.

Reporting on the environment problems posed by dirty Fischer-Tropsch coil-to-oil transformations has been almost non-existent.

However, some articles on their feasability, delivered by politicians to reporters, have been outright laugh riots.

Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has been pushing Fischer-Tropsch plants in his state since 2002.

"Using an updated version of the technology the Nazis used to manufacture diesel fuel from coal during World War II, Gov. Brian Schweitzer believes Montana could produce oil and other petroleum products from the millions of tons of coal reserves it owns in southeastern Montana," reported the Billings Gazzette in 2005.

Then comes the howler.

"The coal-conversion process produces no air pollution..." states the article.

"It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?" says the governor to the insufficiently credulous reporter.

If you're into technicalities, you can cross your fingers and use a semantic dodge to call it true. The Fischer-Tropsch process can be employed in such a way as to remove a couple air-polluting compounds before gasified coal is catalyzed and condensed into liquid fuel. "Coal-to-oil diesel, for example, is sulfur free," reads one source on the science.

However, this is minor when compared to the huge amount of carbon dioxide produced by a Fischer-Tropsch plant. However, it is just this disingenous ploy that is used to call Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil applications "clean coal."

So either the Gazette reporter was flat crazy or Schweitzer was a liar in his zeal for coal-to-oil. Or, more benignly, just stupid. In both cases, journalists simply never called him on the bogus claims. In any case, Schweitzer is well-liked by Montanans, considered folksy and down-to-earth.

On is webpage he proudly touts Lesley Stahl's interview of him for 60 Minutes as the "Coal Cowboy." For that program, which DD saw last year, Schweitzer pushed the same swill fed to the Billings Gazzette in 2005.

"The environmental challenges of [coal-to-oil] fuel production and use are currently being examined by scientists and researchers," writes an explanatory page at the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research.

"Carbon dioxide, a leading cause of global warming, is released when coal is liquefied and again when the [coal-to-oil] fuel is burned."

It's an unequivocal statement of fact. In fact, it's baffling and dismaying to see news coverage and opinion pieces in which Fischer-Tropsch is described as a "clean coal." When you see it, think of it as something meant to confuse and obscure reality.

"In order for [coal-to-oil] products to enter the mainstream as a viable source of transportation fuel, scientists and researchers must find a way to limit carbon dioxide emissions. There are several methods of carbon dioxide capture and sequestration that are under development. These processes and technologies would capture and condense carbon dioxide during coal gasification."

Although its considers Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil transformations "a family of innovations," an opiniont DD does not share, the page is a very good summation of the science and is found here.


American Values and the Next President at the Los Angeles Times.

And you'll surely enjoy yesterday's installment on energy policy: Hot and fresh off the shelf of the Third Reich.

Another case of grandiose wishful thinking: Green jet fuel from microbes. A sample of the common sense-free cheerleading.

Synthetic biologists to save America! Or not.


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