The NYT’s Andy Revkin notes that China opened its first large-scale coal-to-liquid (CTL) facility on December 30. CTL technology, which converts coal into liquid fuel such as gasoline or diesel, has been around since the early 20th century, but has only been widely used twice – in Germany during World War II and in South Africa since the 1970s. As the new plant in Inner Mongolia suggests, China is likely to be the third country to produce significant amounts of CTL fuel.
Why does this matter? The benefit of CTL is that it provides energy independence to countries with limited domestic oil resources but sizable coal deposits. The main drawback – and it’s a doozy – is CTL’s lifecycle carbon emissions. First, large amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted when coal is turned into a liquid. These processing-related emissions are much greater than those associated with the conversion of oil into gasoline. Second, automobiles running on CTL fuel produce tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide which are essentially equivalent to those from cars burning gasoline. In sum, CTL fuel produces between 2 to 3 times as much carbon dioxide as oil.
I’m going to use CTL as an opportunity to write a series of blog posts on vehicle-related carbon emissions, carbon capture technologies (both at power plants and via capture from the ambient air), and carbon storage. China is an especially interesting case because its energy consumption is skyrocketing and it recently passed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. As China’s economy grows over the next few decades, vehicle ownership will probably grow as well. Given China’s large coal reserves, it’s highly likely that China will rely heavily on CTL technologies to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. All of this, as you can imagine, raises many difficult climate policy issues…
More to come!