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Extending the reign of King Coal

ELIZABETH GLASSANOS/FP Original

The coal market isn't as sexy or as global as oil, so it often works outside the media spotlight. But when it comes to understanding how the U.S. energy-security-enviro challenge is shaping up, coal is an excellent place to look because, in America, coal is cheap, plentiful within the country, a huge provider of jobs and megawatts, and a tremendous source of greenhouse gases. 

The global outlook for demand is strong, as Asia's appetite for electricity grows. This year, China became a net importer of coal. As for the United States, part of its energy challenge is improving security of supply — reducing dependence on the understandably dreaded "foreign oil." Making liquid fuels using our own American coal sounds appealing. And perhaps no consumer is more interested in coal-to-liquid (CTL a.k.a. "Fischer-Tropsch") than the U.S. military, which has huge transportation fuel needs and few alternatives to oil (it's kind of hard to build a jet that runs on electricity).

For the coal industry, getting access to the American gas tank would be a tremendous boost, giving it a whole new market outside of power generation and heavy industries like steel. The WSJ filed a must-read report last week, "Coal Industry Hopes Pentagon Will Kindle a Market," that really gets at the key issues. CTL is a huge emitter of carbon dioxide, and the process uses between 5 to 7 gallons of water for every gallon of fuel it produces. But those inconvenient facts aren't dissuading some folks:

The effort nevertheless has some backers at the Pentagon. The Air Force, which consumes the most fuel of the military services, supports using coal-to-liquids fuel. It recently certified the B-52 bomber to run on a blend of Fischer-Tropsch fuel and normal fuel. The Air Force plans to do the same for its entire fleet by 2011. The Air Force intends to buy about 400 million gallons annually by 2016. The service supports legislation that would allow it to sign 25 year contracts for supply, even at historically high prices above $50 per barrel, said William Anderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics.

"If the legislation helps spur on a market that is necessary, we believe, to ensure our long term national security, we believe it's something that has a lot of merit," Mr. Anderson said.

According to Jeff Goodell, the author of Big Coal, the rise of Wyoming coal is one of the key industry dynamics fueling the CTL push. At 18:05 minutes into this excellent June interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Goodell explains how Wyoming coal, in comparison to Appalachian coal, is easier to mine, makes less of an environmental impact, contains less sulfur, burns cleaner, and requires utilities to spend less on scrubbers at coal fired power plants (but it has a lower heat content, so you have to burn more of it). You can practically "dig [it] out with a spoon" in Wyoming, Goodell says.

In contrast, Appalachian coal has been mined for over a century, and because much of the easy-to-mine coal has been extracted, the coal remaining is in thinner seams and is more expensive to extract. So part of the push for CTL, Goodell says, comes from eastern coal states, for which CTL could be a huge boost. Sen. Byrd of West Virginia has likened American coal to "acres of diamonds under our feet." A large federal backing of CTL hasn't come yet, but keep your eye on it. China, like the U.S. Air Force, is in the process of building CTL capacity. And we know how much U.S. legislators like to keep up with China.

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Syria had nuclear facilities? Prove it.

Glenn Kessler has another big piece on the mysterious Israeli raid on Syria, this time on the front page and coauthored with Robin Wright. Joseph Cirincione writes in with an update to last week's blog commentary on this story, which isn't going away:

The Syria-North Korea story continues to spiral out of control, based as far as I can see on hyperbole and speculation. Its tiny spark has been repeatedly fanned by The Washington Post into what the paper yesterday called "the boldest act of nuclear preemption" since Israel's attack on the Iraq reactor at Osirik in 1981.

But there is no Syrian reactor about to go on line generating plutonium, as there was then in Iraq. (That attack, by the way, was condemned by the world, including President Ronald Reagan, and it backfired, pushing Iraq's program underground and onto a fast track.) There is no evidence that there was anything of nuclear significance in Syria.

I have been at the IAEA's General Conference in Vienna all week. No delegation has raised this issue in the conference. The last two times there were attacks on nuclear facilities—the Israeli Osirak bombing, and the Iraqi attack on Iranian facilities during the Iran-Iraq war—the attacks brought the conference to a screeching halt. This time, nothing.

I have spoken to dozens of experts and officials here, including American officials. None has any knowledge of any significant Syrian nuclear program or can imagine what sort of North Korean exchange with Syria would have constituted a nuclear threat worthy of an airstrike.

The last time American officials raised claims of suspect activities, in 2003, IAEA inspectors went to Syria for a "transparency inspection" and were given wide latitude above and beyond the official requirements of routine inspection. The inspectors accounted for all equipment and facilities and judged it improbable that key elements of the equipment could be diverted from the stated research use without clearly impacted the use for which they were intended. The claims, trumpeted by then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton, were baseless.

This hasn't stopped Bolton, now with the full support of the Post, from crying wolf again. If the United States, Israel or any nation seriously believed there was prohibited or suspicious nuclear activity, they could have called for a special inspection. They still could. Any nuclear material—even after a bombing—would leave traces that IAEA inspectors could detect. This is precisely why we have international agencies—to provide independent, rapid verification of suspect activities. The Washington Post's encouragement for states to shoot first invites a more unstable, less secure world for all.

FP interviewed Bolton earlier this week on this story as well, and he told us, "what exactly the target is, I don't know myself." The North Koreans need to provide "very clear answers" about their alleged proliferation activities, Bolton said. But why not send the IAEA to Syria to verify that there was, in fact, nuclear material at the supposed site? That would clear up this whole mystery, no?

UPDATE: Glenn Kessler writes in—

I just want to make clear that I, as a reporter, have nothing to do with the opinions of The Washington Post editorial page. Joe's commentary seems to merge the news reporting of the Post with the editorial that appeared yesterday. He also seems to suggest the Post has been all alone on this story, when in fact my competitors at The New York Times have also broken good stories on this subject. The story today reported that Israel shared this intelligence with the United States; it pointedly noted there are many questions about this intelligence and it has not been verified. Certainly, the official silence on this story has been striking, which makes it all the more puzzling.