The Military-Industrial Complex Embraces Coal-to-Liquids

By Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News

military industrial complexIn his Farewell Address to the nation Jan. 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about the growing influence of what he termed the "military-industrial complex." The President said,

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military- industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes."

It is time to pay close attention to President Eisenhower's warning. In the past six months, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) has begun a major effort to define the future of energy supplies for the U.S. and for its military allies. If military brass reach their goal, the transportation fuel of the future will be based on coal.

According to Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson, the USAF plan is to:

1. Build a "
network" of coal-to-liquid-fuels plants to supply the
Air Force with 400 million gallons of jet fuel each year by the year
2016 -- enough to power half its North American fleet of aircraft.
Plans for creating this network are on a "fast track," according to
officials developing coal-to-liquids plants in
Montana and Alaska.

2. Engage in "
a major international initiative" to persuade the
governments of France, England and other nations to adopt coal-based liquid fuels.

3. Prod Wall Street investors -- nervous over coal's role in climate
change -- to sink money into similar plants nationwide.

According to Assistant Secretary Anderson, with the Air Force paving the way, the private sector will follow -- from commercial air fleets to long-haul trucking companies. "Because of our size, we can move the market along,"
Anderson says. "Whether it's (coal-based) diesel that goes into Wal-Mart trucks or jet fuel that goes into our fighters, all that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, which is the endgame."

CoalMatthew Brown of the Associated Press observes that, "Coal producers have been unsuccessful in prior efforts to cultivate such a market. Climate change worries prompted Congress last year to turn back an attempt to mandate the use of coal-based synthetic fuels."

In other words, the Air Force is trying to do what the Congress
refused to do and the coal industry itself has failed to do -- which
is to use financial and political power to steer the nation's energy
policy toward coal-based fuels.

Brown goes on to
point out that,

"The Air Force's involvement comes at a critical time for the [coal] industry. Coal's biggest customers, electric utilities, have scrapped at least four dozen proposed coal-fired power plants over rising costs and the uncertainties of climate change."

In other words, the coal industry is on the ropes because the electric power industry (and its Wall Street backers) are having second thoughts about investing in coal technologies that produce far more global-warming greenhouse gases than any other fuel.

So the Air Force is fast-tracking a plan to bail out the coal industry by powering military jets with coal-based fuels, explicitly intending to stimulate a coal-based fuels industry to power Wal-Mart's trucks and, presumably, the rest of the nation's -- and France and England's, if not the world's -- transport systems.

Ironically, late last year members of the Defense Science Board, which advises the Pentagon on energy policy, rejected an Air Force plan to fund the development of liquid fuels derived from coal.

"Right now, coal-to-liquids looks to me to be pretty darn low on the reasonable list of alternatives," James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency,
told the Wall Street Journal last September. At the time, Mr. Woolsey was participating in a report being prepared by the Defense Science Board.

Another member of the study panel, Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told the Wall Street Journal the military doesn't need its own dedicated fuel supply.

"The notion that the Pentagon has to spend all this money to give
itself assured supply is kind of a contrived argument," Mr. Romm said. "The consensus of just about everybody on the panel was it didn't make sense."

The Air Force marches to a different drummer.

Despite these recommendations, in the last six months the Air Force has begun aggressively pursuing coal-to-liquids technology and is urging the nation and the world to adopt it. Coal-to-liquids was developed in 1923 by German chemists because Germany has no oil supplies of its own. During World War II, liquid fuels from coal powered the Nazi army.

So coal-to-liquids technology is not new. It is a proven technology, but since there are no coal-to-liquids plants operating anywhere in the U.S., it is unfamiliar. Furthermore, coal-to-liquids is a notoriously dirty and polluting technology. Gallon for gallon, coal- based liquid fuels emit twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as the same fuels made from petroleum. CO2 is widely considered to be the main human contributor to global warming.

What's important to recognize is that the Air Force
says it is
committed to "green fuels." They say they are serious about their
concern for the natural environment, especially global warming.

Therefore, their plans for developing a coal-to-liquids industry are
all based on the assumption that the resulting CO2 will be captured and buried in the ground -- a process known as CCS (
carbon capture and storage). CCS has been talked about since 1979, but it has never been implemented on a commercial scale.

CCS is still nothing more than talk. There are no scientific
guidelines for burial of CO2 in the ground. There are no agreed-upon criteria for selecting (or rejecting) a burial site, or for
characterizing it (meaning, to examine it in detail for suitability).
No one has defined "success" or "failure" for a CCS burial project. No one is exactly sure how to monitor for leakage. No one has determined how much leakage is "acceptable" during what period of time. No one has decided who will be responsible if leakage occurs. (All the coal- to-liquids plants will be privately owned, according to the Air Force plan.) All these questions, and many more, are -- or should be -- subjects of vigorous debate.

Answering these questions properly would require decades of careful work, experimentation, scientific evaluation, and public discussion. One of the biggest supporters of CCS technology -- Shell Oil -- believes CCS could not operate on an industrial scale much
before 2050 -- and that assumes that all the answers to all the questions indicate a green light.

But the Air Force is trying to stimulate the creation of a 400-
million-gallon-per-year coal-to-liquids industry by 2016 -- less than 8 years from now. If the coal-to-liquids industry materializes by 2016, either it will be a major contributor to global warming -- twice as bad as its petroleum-based counterpart, gallon for gallon -- or it will be playing Russian roulette with the future of the planet, burying large quantities of CO2 in the ground without proper scientific and engineering preparation, controls and oversight.

It seems that careful deliberation and thoughtful debate have been cast aside as the Air Force has set itself on a fast-track mission to bail out the coal industry.

Is this not a compelling example of the danger to our democratic
processes that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961?

Further Reading:

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  • Posted on Aug. 16, 2008.

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