Air Force drops plan to make fuel from coal in Montana

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Air Force on Thursday dropped plans to build a coal-to-liquid plant to produce fuel for its aircraft, a plan that would've reduced dependence on oil but increased the emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.

The Air Force has a goal to certify that all aircraft could fly on a 50-50 blend of fuel by 2011. It's been purchasing fuel made from coal from Sasol of South Africa, most recently 300,000 gallons, said Air Force spokesman Gary Strasburg.

The B1, B52 and C-17 already have been certified to run on the coal-mix blend, and the F-15, F-22, C-5 and KC-135 all have also used the blend, Strasburg said.

The Air Force is looking for alternatives to oil to make sure that it can continue to operate its aircraft when supplies are tight. The coal-to-liquid conversion process, however, is expensive to set up and there are no full-scale plants in the U.S.

Liquid fuel from coal produces more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions as conventional petroleum-based fuel.

The Air Force for the past year had been considering building the plant at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, one of three U.S. Air Force bases that maintain and operate the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.

The service had required that the coal-to-liquid plant would be privately funded, according to an Air Force news release on Thursday.

The Air Force rejected the plans for the coal-to-liquids plant because of possible conflicts with the 341 Missile Wing's nuclear mission. The release said the concerns included decreased security near the base's weapons storage area, interference with missile transportation and "explosive safety arcs and operational flight safety issues."

Strasburg said he couldn't comment on whether there were economic or environmental concerns until after all participants in the original plan were briefed. The Air Force Real Property Agency had submitted a plan for the plant in February 2008.

The 2007 energy law requires that federal agencies not purchase fuels with greater greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petroleum fuels.

The main users and producers of fuel from coal have been South Africa and Nazi Germany.

Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said coal-to-liquid fuels "make no sense for a free economy" because they're expensive and would require taxpayer funds to get them off the ground.

"We have a very long history of trying to do this in the United States and it repeatedly results in subsidies from the public and inability to compete in any fair market place," he said.

The Air Force also would've had to find a way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions at additional expense Henderson said.

The Air Force is in the beginning stages of laboratory testing of advanced biofuels, which would have lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuel.

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