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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 November 2007, 17:20 GMT
Coal conversion dilemma for US
Climate change demo at G8 Summit 2007
Climate change protestors are upping the pressure on the US
The US is the world's greatest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide with each US citizen responsible for 20 tonnes of gas annually - the world average is less than four.

As global warming campaigners increase pressure on the White House to cut emissions, policymakers in the US have other concerns: they say there is a threat not just from climate security but from what is known as energy security.

"We're expending tens of billions of dollars annually on the purchase of oil from other countries," explained Congressman Rich Boucher, a member of Congress's Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Most of those dollars flow to places that are not particularly friendly to the United States. This would be the Middle East primarily.

"I think our national security is affected because we simply can't offend; we have to encourage the continued flow of oil to this country."

Congressman Boucher believes it is vital the US achieves a higher degree of energy self sufficiency for security and economic reasons.

It [coal] is the foundation for about half the electricity generation in the US today and we don't have other readily available fuel alternatives
Congressman Rick Boucher

America has a plentiful source of domestic energy - coal. Half of the US's electricity comes from coal-fired power stations, but amid the political debate over climate change the fuel is not seen as eco-friendly.

The solution, according to Congressman Boucher, could be liquid coal - a type of oil produced by heating the mineral to high temperatures to squeeze out the oil.

It is a tempting prospect for politicians to use a home-grown fuel source to replace imported oil, and keep cars on the road, planes in the air.

The US Air Force wants coal-to-liquid to replace jet fuel in its fleet.

Rich seam

As might be expected, the coal producers and mining unions are lobbying hard.

Corey Henry, a lobbyist for the Coal-to-Liquid Coalition, highlighted its appeal.

"The way you sell this idea is by asking members of Congress if they want to gamble on letting America continue to grow ever more reliant on imported oil that, as everyone knows, can occasionally come from areas of the world that present some difficulties for the United States."

But green groups are horrified.

One of the key goals has to be that climate security wins out against the coal-to-liquid goal otherwise we have no chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change
Jennifer Morgan, E3G

Kert Davies, from Greenpeace, said coal-to-liquid is one of the dirtiest energy sources available, pointing out that the only country currently using it on a large scale is South Africa. The technology was developed under apartheid when the country was starved of oil by sanctions.

"It [liquid coal] has double the greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline because of the tremendous energy involved in the process," he added.

Another green campaigner, Jennifer Morgan, of lobby group E3G, is optimistic that the debate is shifting in the US, with energy efficiency and renewable sources being looked at in a new light.

But she added: "The danger is that you are also trying to include coal and do coal-to-liquid programmes.

"One of the key goals has to be that climate security wins out against the coal-to-liquid goal otherwise we have no chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."

Meanwhile supporters of liquid coal such as Congressman Boucher admit its green limitations.

The coal-to-liquid plant in South Africa is said by some to be the world's greatest point source of CO2 emissions.

'No alternatives'

The congressman agrees that carbon sequestration technology would be essential to capture and store the carbon and reduce damaging emissions. However, he concedes that the technology to do that has yet to be developed.

The coal lobby is pinning its hopes on federal research funding for an experimental project.

"We are conducting research programmes and demonstration programmes to accelerate the day when it will be available in the United States - even the most optimistic estimates say that year is probably 2025," said Congressman Boucher.

In the meantime, he argues, America has to go for coal whatever the climate risks: "It is the foundation for about half the electricity generation in the US today and we don't have other readily available fuel alternatives."

Inside The Climate Change Talks will be broadcast on 0906 GMT, Tuesday 6 November 2007, 7 November and 8 November on the BBC World Service European Service.



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