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Op-ed: Coal-to-liquid project shows Utah still stuck in 20th century

Published January 2, 2016 4:21 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Here we are, 16 years into the 21st century, and Utah continues to hitch its wagon to a 19th century resource, coal.

It was just two weeks prior to Christmas that we learned the Utah Division of Air Quality was set to permit a proposed "coal to liquids" (CTL) manufacturing facility in Wellington, a facility designed to produce diesel fuel, jet fuel, liquefied petroleum gas and naptha.

In what doesn't bode well for public involvement, the UDAQ published the only public notice for this project in the small Carbon County newspaper, the Sun Advocate, on Thanksgiving Day. To fulfill minimum public requirements, they scheduled a 30-day comment period (with no public hearing) that would have ended the day after Christmas.



The thought of reading a 300-page document over my holiday break wasn't thrilling. When we and others complained, the agency extended the comment period to Jan. 10 (a Sunday) and agreed to hold a public hearing in Wellington on Jan. 6 at 6 p.m., making it virtually impossible for working Salt Lake City residents to attend.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment immediately requested another comment deadline extension to Jan. 30 and a public hearing in Salt Lake County, where the largest percentage of Utahns reside who might actually care about this project. This request was refused. When I questioned who would be harmed by allowing for more public involvement, I was met with dead silence. When I further suggested that it seemed unconscionable that the agency would consider permitting a facility responsible for nearly 300,000 annual tons of CO2, less than a month after an historic 200 nation-agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, again there was no response.

According the UDAQ's Notice of Intent to Approve, the ironically named Revolution Fuels project will process up to 750 tons of coal per day and emit per year 20.2 tons of PM10, 20.2 tons of PM2.5, 23 tons of NOx, 83.8 tons of carbon monoxide, 9.2 tons of volatile organic compounds, 1.9 tons of SO2, 8.9 tons of hazardous air pollutants like mercury and a whopping 295,445 tons of CO2. Still, the UDAQ considers this a "minor source."

These numbers don't include the emissions from the combustion of the fuel products or the process of shipping the liquid fuel by rail or tanker truck to the appropriate markets.

Converting coal to liquid fuel isn't new. After the global community cut off Germany's access to oil in the 1930s, the Germans developed CTL technology that came to be known as the Fischer-Tropsch process (the same proposed by Revolution Fuels), whereby the coal is steamed at very high temperatures to convert it to a hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas, after which it is hit with a series of catalysts to convert it to liquid. This is literally how Hitler powered his military fleet during World War II. Of the many dirty realities, however, CTL produces twice as much CO2 as conventional petroleum fuels.

For a bit of context, in the five years that followed the infamous 2001 Cheney Energy Task Force, we saw more than 200 coal plant proposals emerge around the country. Four were here in Utah, with another 20 plants around the Interior West.

Thanks to a lot of public outcry, none of those in Utah or the Interior West were built, and only about 30 saw eventual construction in the U.S. Even the vastly hyped FutureGen, the new "clean coal" technology plant in Illinois that would capture all of the nasty pollutants and CO2, also met a timely death due to impossible promises and cost overruns.

Since 2008, nearly 200 of the nation's existing 523 coal plants have either been retired or announced for closure. From 2009 to 2014, 26 coal production companies filed for bankruptcy and 264 mines closed. The year 2015 saw Arch, Peabody and Alpha all file. China has recently cut its coal consumption by 16 percent and is planning to shutter all four of its massive coal burners in pollution-plagued Beijing. And six proposed coal export terminals on America's West Coast have been met with stiff resistance, most of them defeated.

While coal isn't yet dead, it is in a continued trajectory towards the grave.

There seems to be two hard lessons here for Utah leaders and regulators in this Revolution Fuels saga. First to Utah's DAQ: talking and walking transparency and public involvement should be one in the same, no matter the project. That might actually mean more than "what is required." The public deserves it. To Utah's leaders, the 21st century is here. For the good of all, let's embrace it.

Tim Wagner serves as executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

 

 

 

 

 

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