Eastern Kentucky has long lived by the trends in the coal industry. The region has depended on the coal beneath its mountains, valleys and streams to fuel its economy and put food on tables.
Over time, the coal industry has changed as technology has altered the methods of extracting coal. Now, some are talking about drastic changes for the industry that would not only affect mining, but the uses of the mining product.
According to William Bowker, Director of the Division of Fossil Fuels and Utility Services in the Governor’s Office of Energy Policy, using coal as a transportation energy source could greatly boost Kentucky’s economy.
Bowker said that it would cost about $2.5 billion to construct a coal-to-liquid fuel plant capable of producing 30,000 barrels of fuel a day. That plant would generate 2,000 construction jobs for two years and 400 permanent jobs at the plant. Those employment opportunities are in addition to the jobs that would be required to produce the six million tons of coal a year necessary to produce the liquid fuel.
A coal-to-liquid fuel plant in Kentucky could generate thousands of needed jobs-- in and out of the mining industry as people will be needed to research methods of producing the fuel, investigate its uses and implementations, make the fuel, distribute it, and more. “It’s pretty exciting,” Bowker said.
Coal-to-liquid fuel or coal-to-gas fuel are both produced through basically the same process: the Fischer-Tropsch process. The method was developed in the 1920s by German scientists looking for a fuel from their own resources-- which did not include bountiful oil reserves. Germany’s rich coalfields however, lead scientists to develop a very clean fuel in a process that can still be applied today.
The clean production of what Bowker called “super clean diesel” adds to the attractiveness of increased focus on coal-to-liquid fuels. The Fischer-Tropsch method requires coal without sulfur to function so there would be no sulfur emissions.
According to William Bowker, plants would be virtually emissions free. While nitrous oxide emissions are low in coal-to-liquid fuel plants and mercury can be removed cheaper than at a regular power plant, researchers have found that carbon-dioxide emissions can be captured and dealt with before being released into the environment.
Bowker said that research is proving that carbon-dioxide can be stored underground nearly anywhere across the nation. Once the emissions are captured, they can be sequestered underground in saline aquifers, worked-out coal seams, or other below-ground locations.
The process can even help access hard-to-get-to oil. The concentrated carbon-dioxide emissions can be pumped underneath oil reserves which will push the oil up and keep the carbon-dioxide trapped underground.
The possibilities of carbon-dioxide sequestering has received $450 million and ten years in research efforts that still continue. If those emissions are captured and stored below ground and out of the atmosphere, coal-to-liquid fuel plants have the potential to create nearly zero emissions.
Many already worry about the environmental impacts of mining the eastern Kentucky coal fields. However, the region’s economy is very much dependent on the coal industry now and a boost in the business could mean a boost for the economy.
That dependency on the coal industry may call into question the future of eastern Kentucky’s economy if the region increases coal production to meet the needs of fuel alternatives such as coal-to-liquid fuel.
David Coyte, President of the Louisville-based transportation advocacy group, Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation (CART), sees coal-to-liquid fuel efforts as a threat to eastern Kentucky.
Coyte believes that such efforts would drastically reduce the longevity of the region’s coal reserves and stresses alternative fuel sources to both coal-to-liquid fuel and oil such as solar energy. Coyte termed plans to push coal-to-liquid fuel as “not very well conceived.”
William Bowker has a different view of the potentials of using coal as an alternative to oil dependency. An estimate of all the coal inside Kentucky is around 51.9 billion tons and could last over 500 years. But not all of that coal is easy to get to.
According to Bowker, the conservative measure of Kentucky’s coal future-- the measure of Kentucky’s coal that is economically viable to mine with today’s mining techniques-- would last through 114 years.
In 2005, Kentucky mined 93 million tons of coal, but would have to up that number to support coal-to-liquid fuel needs. With the increased production, Bowker said that Kentucky’s conservatively measured coal would last 107 years-- only seven years less than at current mining rates.
Bowker’s statements about the state of Kentucky’s coalfields don’t hint at any drastic change in the number of years eastern Kentucky will be able to continue basing its economy on coal. And William Bowker added that the research is looking into more alternative fuel sources the area can be a part of producing-- such as wind energy and other biofuels.
Coal-to-liquid energy could not just be important for bringing more money into eastern Kentucky’s economy, it could help them stay here. The nation’s dependency on foreign oil is increasingly becoming a problem. Especially as oil prices soar. William Bowker said that this country has a growing demand for oil and so does the world. Countries such as China and India have growing economies demanding more energy fuels-- and that demand cuts into the the United State’s ability to dominate oil reserves.
According to Bowker, the US used 21 million barrels of oil a day in 2004 while importing 12 million of those: 58% of the oil the country used daily. That number isn’t expected to decrease over time and in fact, by 2030, the nation is predicted to import 65% of the 28 million oil barrels used daily. Oil prices won’t decrease in the face of such trends.
The only way to combat increasing fuel costs is to look to indigenous resources-- such as coal. As Bowker noted, the national and state congresses are realizing the possibilities of weaning the nation off of foreign oil dependency with alternatives such as coal by offering incentives to companies to invest in producing alternative fuels.
Eastern Kentucky is rich in coal and according to Bowker, very attractive to the coal-to-liquid fuel industry. “We have coal, rivers, the mining industry, and we’re right in the middle of the county,” Bowker said. Bowker added that Governor Fletcher’s administration has been very involved in funding research to determine if Kentucky could support coal-to-liquid fuel plants and where the most feasible locations are.
If Kentucky is able to announce plans to build a plant producing clean coal alternative fuels-- Bowker cautions that it would still take years to develop and construct. Currently, Kentucky is in discussions with some firms interested in coming to the state for coal-to-liquid fuel efforts.
The nation is taking steps toward making clean coal energy efforts a viable part of the country’s energy source. FutureGen is a billion dollar partnership between the government and industry to fund an alternative coal fuel plant that proves its possible to produce liquid coal and be emissions free.
According to Bowker, the energy industry-- involving dozens of large corporations and some foreign countries-- has produced $250 million for the FutureGen plant and the government provided the rest.
However, Bowker said the location of the plant will most likely be Illinois or Texas, not Kentucky. That is not keeping the state from looking into bringing a coal-to-liquid fuel plant to Kentucky on its own. “We’re studying locations and creating a site bank so that the industry can see plausible sites for plants,” Bowker said. “We’re looking at a number of ways to bring the technology into Kentucky.”
Eastern Kentucky has long depended on the coal industry to feed and clothe itself. If becoming part of the move to alternative fuel sources through coal-to-liquid fuel technology can boost the economy of the region without rapidly depleting the region’s coal reserves, investing in this new industry could greatly benefit the area.