Air Force pitches coal-to-liquids plant
BY: Matthew Brown, Associated Press
Air Force officials laid out an ambitious plan Wednesday to develop a privately financed coal-to-diesel plant at Malmstrom air base within the next four years at a cost of $1 billion to $4 billion.
The plant, which would be among the first of its kind in the nation, would use a technology perfected in Nazi Germany to turn coal into synthetic fuels, including jet fuel for use by the Air Force.
The project has strong support from the coal industry, which considers synthetic fuels a promising new market as coal-fired power plants face opposition over climate change.
But environmental groups already are girding up to fight the project. At a community forum on the Malmstrom proposal Wednesday, they said the plant and others like it could increase emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide even as governments around the world struggle to cut those emissions.
Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson pledged that would not happen. He said the service will require whoever builds the plant to design it to capture carbon dioxide for use in industrial purposes.
"We won't buy a fuel that's not cleaner than current alternatives, and we don't support a plant on our base that doesn't produce a cleaner fuel," Anderson said.
Anderson also said the plant would help reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil, creating a homegrown alternative that would be fed by an estimated 250 years worth of coal reserves nationwide.
Montana has more than a quarter of those reserves, which Anderson said was one of the reasons Malmstrom was chosen for the new plant.
By 2016, the Air Force wants to use a synthetic jet fuel blend for up to 50 percent of the fuel used by its domestic fleet. That would require roughly 400 million gallons of coal-based fuel annually.
Chuck Magraw with the Natural Resources Defense Council said capturing the carbon dioxide from that much fuel production could prove impossible.
"I don't think it's achievable," he said.
Great Falls City Commissioner William Bronson said it was too early for his community to decide whether it will support or oppose the proposal. Until a company comes forward and submits a design and construction plan, he said, "we don't really know how to respond."
Worldwide, only three coal-to-liquids plants are now operating, all in South Africa. A fourth is expected to come online in China this winter, said Corey Henry with the Coal-to-Liquid Coalition, an industry group.
The Malmstrom plant is one of about 15 proposed in the United States, primarily in coal producing states including Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
A second meeting between the Air Force, state officials and industry representatives was scheduled for Thursday. The Air Force has closed that meeting to the public and denied requests by The Associated Press and other news organizations to attend.
Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center said closing the meetings was "outrageous" given the scope of the proposed plant and the level of public interest.
"This state has great open meeting laws. The federal government should honor those," she said.
Col. Bobbie Griffin, Anderson's senior assistant, said the Air Force wanted to offer companies interested in the project an opportunity for candid discussion absent a public spotlight.
"We've got nothing to hide," Griffin added.
Among the companies expected to attend Thursday's meetings were Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Rentech and the South African company Sasol.