Liquid Coal: The New Black Gold?

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WILLIAMSON, W.Va. - America has billions of tons of coal in its mountains, and with gas prices going through the roof, the question is why isn't more coal being turned into liquid fuel?

Where Coal is King

Welcome to the trillion dollar coal field Mingo County, W. Va., where coal, as they say, is king. And many in these parts would like to expand that kingdom by turning this black rock into liquid. Liquid fuel that could be used in cars, planes and hopefully one day make America less dependent on foreign oil.

Click play to hear Pat Robertson's analysis following CBN News Reporter Wendy Griffith's report.

A plan is on the table to build a $2 billion liquid coal plant here in Mingo County. It could be up and running by 2012 and would be one of the first liquid coal plants in the country.

"We've got the raw product right here, so it just makes sense to do it right here in the middle of where the raw product is," Mike Whitt with the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority said.

Williamson, W. Va. is home to the nation's largest coal yard. Miles and miles of train cars filled with coal make there way from here to feed power plants all over the east coast.

With the price of diesel fuel sky-rocketing, Whitt dreams of the day when some of that coal will be turned into liquid diesel to help support the local economy.

"We're setting up to produce ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel which can be used on school buses for the school system," he said. "Your trucks on the road here, these engines that you see right here on the railroad, they're willing to work with us to do some testing on their engines for their locomotives, their tug boats."

The plant, which promises to bring hundreds of good paying jobs to the region, would use both coal and wood. Wood helps neutralize the carbon and is also an abundant natural resource in West Virginia. The coal and wood are heated and first transformed into a gas before being made into liquid.

So just how much coal is in these mountains?

"Within 150 miles of where we're standing right now, we mine over 150 million tons of coal a year," Randy Harris said. "That's enough coal to power almost all the power plants on the East Coast."

A Solution to the Energy Crisis?

Harris has studied the idea of liquid coal for more than 20 years and says it could help the nation's energy crisis.

"If we were to take that coal and convert it into diesel fuel, 150 million tons of coal would create 300 million barrels of oil. We import into this country everyday about 16 million barrels," he explained.

West Virginia congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito is also pushing hard for liquid coal. She wants Congress to mandate domestic production of 6 billion barrels of liquid from coal each year by 2022.

She says U.S. coal reserves are larger than the combined oil reserves of the rest of the world, including the Middle East. Her legislation is modeled after the ethanol fuel targets already enacted by Congress and would require steady increases in the amount of fuel sold in the U.S.

"It will be less expensive. It will use an abundant natural resource that we have here in our country and certainly in West Virginia," Capito said. "I know people are looking for short-term solutions, and we're trying some short-term solutions, but unfortunately the long-term solutions are where we're going to find the greatest relief."

Environmental Concerns

Turning coal into liquid fuel is not new. It's been done in other countries for decades. But the question remains, is it safe for the environment?

"All the studies and research that we've gotten done say it's very safe," Whitt said. "The bottom line is, if we're not smart enough to figure out what our neighboring countries are doing for industry independence...then we're going to be behind the curve. We can't continue to depend on foreign oil."

But some environmentalists claim liquid coal is one of the dirtiest energy sources available with double the greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline.

Harris says that's not true, and that liquid coal plants actually burn cleaner than oil refineries. Still, he says many obstacles remain, including waiting for Congress to set the rules on carbon emissions for coal to liquid technology. But with the current oil crisis, Whitt says there's never been a better time to turn coal into liquid.

"Somebody's got to do this, prove it can be done and done successfully so that other plants can pop up throughout the United States because we need them," he said.

*Originally published August 2, 2008

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