I recall a time when aiding the huddled masses was considered a fine thing. “Charitable giving” it was called, and it was the bedrock of an ethical society, a good life. Beginning with the gradual ascent of Homo sapiens, first codified as the Golden Rule, and peaking with the invention of “kindergarten,” establishing the moral reign of the “good guy” was considered man’s noblest moment.
Then came James Hansen. Up is now down, poo don’t stink, and withholding life-sustaining technology from those in the grip of famine is the new Renaissance. On March 26, Wired magazine — apparently staffed with this new breed of thinkers — induced seizures and ripped space-time with one MC Escher-ific headline and article: “Bad News: Scientists Make Cheap Gas From Coal.”
Ben Glasser, a PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, co-authored an article in last week’s issue of Science regarding his work on coal-to-liquid technology. When the cost of oil rises, it becomes a huge burden on certain countries that need to import the fuel. But a process exists to convert coal into liquid gas suitable for car and jet engines. It’s called the Fischer-Tropsch process. Cooked up by two German scientists in the 1920s, it can be a lifesaver in times when that process is more economical or politically stable than buying oil.
The good news is that the process works. The great news is that Glasser and his colleagues have made a discovery that tremendously revs up the efficiency of the process. This means cheap, cheap fuel for people that just might need it and have economical access to coal. Glasser helped develop a coal-to-liquid plant in China, where cheaper energy and openness to a degree of capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty. Glasser’s work could also be a boon to the U.S., where you can’t throw James Hansen without hitting a 50-year stash of delicious anthracite.
Wired’s take? Alexis Madrigal, one of the magical thinkers, writes:
Scientists have devised a new way to transform coal into gas for your car using far less energy than the current process. The advance makes scaling up the environmentally unfriendly fuel more economical than greener alternatives.
Actually, coal-to-liquid is more economical even without the breakthrough. Madrigal continues:
If oil prices rise again, adoption of the new coal-to-liquid technology, reported this week in Science, could undercut adoption of electric vehicles or next-generation biofuels. And that’s bad news for the fight against climate change.
Le Changement Climatique! Quel desastre! Alexis de Tocqueville never had to wrestle with such beasts.
Glasser’s new production method allows them to set a lower limit on the amount of energy that would be needed to transform solid coal into fuel. The very best possible CTL process would require 350 megawatts of input to make 80,000 gallons of fuel; the current process uses more than 1,000 megawatts. Even with the small efficiency gains, a large, domestic, carbon-intensive source of transportation fuel would throw a wrench into many plans to reduce emissions from vehicles.
Emission reductions notwithstanding, how does a drop from 1000 megawatts to 350 qualify as only a “small” efficiency gain? What would a large one look like? And how much energy is 80,000 gallons of fuel? And what kind of megawatts are we talking about? Megawatt-hours? Days? How about a humanist comparison regarding how many lives could be saved by implementing Glasser’s research (lots), versus how many could be saved by focusing on emission reductions (data not found)?
What? Close my laptop, it’s Ye Olde Tymey Earthe Hour? Fine. I shall write by carbon-emitting candlelight. Because Madrigal includes one of the more repugnant passages I’ve seen in supposed science reporting, and it needs to be noted. She writes:
The process of cooking coal into liquid fuel, on the other hand, has already proven itself on a massive scale. Take coal, add some water, cook it, and you’ve got a liquid fuel for your car. The hydrogen in the water bonds to the carbon and voila: hydrocarbons, such as octane. It’s the very fact that coal-to-liquids could work that make them such a scary idea for people devoted to fighting climate change. … The Nazis used the so-called Fisher-Tropsch process to provide up to half of their transportation fuel needs during World War II. Later, South Africa began a major coal-to-liquids program during the Apartheid era and now maintain the world’s largest CTL industry in the world. The country’s factories produce 160,000 barrels of fuel a day, a little more than all the residents and businesses in Utah use each day.
Apropos of nothing, we have Nazis and apartheid in this article. Both did use coal-to-liquid and were in fact the major historical users of the technology. But throw in Madrigal’s lede about a “scary idea” and add her bizarre mention of Utah, and you have a clear intent to associate carbon production with both unconscionable behavior and that which she believes to be unconscionable.
You know who also uses about 160,000 barrels of oil a day? A few states and a number of regions throughout the world. Yet Utah is the choice, and she puts it in the same paragraph. What I — and the rest of the non-misanthrope crowd — find to be a scary idea is the delegitimization and dehumanization we are challenged with when trying to hold an objective debate on science and public policy. What I find to be a scary idea is the advocacy of violent, anarchic behavior to halt carbon emissions, as James Hansen recently promoted as a means of stopping power plant production. The climate change crowd is dizzy; spun in an amoral, irrational frenzy. Articles like these fuel the fire. As the “enlightened” move further away from objective, intelligent, analysis in favor of intimidation, it’s the duty of the rest of us to point it out and continue behaving reasonably.
Be the good guys. And never forget that such a principled, tangible thing must always exist.