Thought experiment

Suppose you could produce gasoline for far less than you could today? Would that be good news or bad news? Wired has a story describing a process which purports to cut the cost of coal to liquid. And scientists say this is terrible news because it is bad for the environment.

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.

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.

The new process could cut the energy cost of producing the fuel by 20 percent just by rejiggering the intermediate chemical steps, said co-author Ben Glasser of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. But coal-derived fuel could produce as much as twice as much CO2 as traditional petroleum fuels and at best will emit at least as much of the greenhouse gas.

"The bottom line is that there's one fatal flaw in their proposed process from a climate protection standpoint," Pushker Karecha of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies wrote in an e-mail to Wired.com. "It would allow liquid fuel CO2 emissions to continue increasing indefinitely."

The story is told, perhaps apocryphally, of Lenin scolding his sister for giving soup to the poor on the grounds that it would delay the revolution. So, if carbon emissions are bad -- then doesn't it make sense to prevent any more fossil fuel sources from being developed? If you suddenly discovered a process that would make gasoline from seawater, wouldn't that put you in the same league as a person who managed to transmute rocks into crack cocaine? You shouldn't receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. You should be put up against the wall and shot. Without the traditional last cigarette of course, because it's bad for your health. And if you object, then why? Where's the logical flaw. Open thread.