Members of Congress are falling all over themselves writing legislation that would pump millions of taxpayer dollars into schemes that promise to turn coal into synthetic gas, develop oil shale, and the most popular at the moment, plans to transform coal into a liquid oil.
If any of this were to happen, huge hunks of the fragile western plains would be transformed into modern mining camps, wrecking fragile ecosystems, exhausting and polluting water supplies. Manufacture of synthetic fuels would subject workers, and the general nearby populations to cancer causing chemicals.
There's nothing new about synthetic fuels made from coal. In the 19th century street lamps in cities were lit with gas made from coal.In 1909, a key date in the development of this business, Friedrich Bergius, a German scientist, invented a way to produce synthetic gasoline from coal and hydrogen under high pressure by means of a process called hydrogenation.
During World War I, Bergius tried without success to adapt his process to large scale production. Carl Bosch, the chairman of the I.G. Farben chemical combine, then in its infancy, thought the Bergius process held great possibilities for the Germany-a country with little or no oil of its own.
Short on fuel, Germany had been strangled during World War I by the British fleet By 1924 Germany was secretely rearming in violation of the Versailles treaty, and the new mechanized army needed a sure source of gasoline.
But turning coal into gasoline would be expensive and Bosch sought to involve Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon's predecessor), He thought Standard would help foot the bill. Standard's top officers were invited to Germany to see for themselves what Boschs's men were doing. They were duly alarmed and came home worried Bosch's synthetic fuel might overwhelm Standard's oil wells and cripple the most powerful oil company in the world with.
Bosch, of course, was delighted at the Americans's fright. Throwing caution to the winds, he plunged ahead, pumping million of dollars into mass production, sure the Americans would have no choice but to join him. His goal was 100,000 tons of coal gasoline a year.
Soon, Standard and IG Farben came to terms. The two companies cut a deal, setting up a cartel through which IG Farben agreed to stay out of the oil business and Standard agreed to keep clear of the chemical business.
Standard, however, soon lost interest--in part because of the depression, and in part because of big new finds in Texas that promised a flood of oil..
Nothing much happened until World War II when Hitler, another keen proponent of liquid coal, got behind synthetic fuel and by 1943 synthetics accounted for half of all German fuel,with the air force being one of the biggest users. The Luftwaffe controlled the skies over Europe during the early stages of the war. One of the liquefaction plants was located in Silesia where there were ample supplies of coal, water and slave labor. It was called I.G. Auschwitz. Finally the US Air Force destroyed the IG synthetic plants.At Nuremburg the IG Farben executives either got off or received light sentences.
Following the energy crisis of the 1970s, American oil companies renewed their interests in coal, buying up existing coal companies and getting control of reserves.Their emphasis was more on gasification than liquefaction since the supposed need at the time was to find a substitute for dwindling supplies of natural gas. In fact there was plenty of natural gas,and after first Carter, then Reagan, deregulated prices, the oil companies could make enough profit from selling real gas and didn't need the synthetics. Once again synthetics slipped into the background. Oil companies cut back or ditched their coal holdings.
Now the cycle begins all over again. The energy industry sees sufficiently high prices to once again develop synthetics. But, as always, this will only happen if the politicians and taxpayers are dumb enough to pay for it.