A Discussion with Governor Brian Schweitzer
He outlined his energy achievements as he sees them:
- Fulfilling a campaign promise to get legislation requiring 10% of Montana's electricity from wind by 2010 (he says Montana has the most wind resource of any state in the nation). One wind farm recently opened, and he says five more projects are in the pipeline.
- Pushing ethanol in Montana's gasoline. In fact legislation mandating 10% ethanol, has passed. He's a big fan of biofuels, as he thinks Montana could grow a lot of Camelina, an oilseed brassica, in Eastern parts of the state that are close to desert conditions, and use it to make biodiesel.
- Pushed for an insertion of a loan guarantee for a coal-to-liquids plant in the recent energy bill.
He didn't talk about peak oil much. He frames the issue mainly in terms of energy independence. He, like us, has noted the wonderful national leadership on these issues:
If you're looking to Congress to lead, forget about it. This is the best Congress money can buy. There's enough money in big oil to buy Congress for years into the future.He tried to proactively addressed possible objections before we could raise them. He emphasized that in CTL it's much easier to clean the heavy metals and sulphur out of the syngas than it is to prevent these emissions when burning coal directly. He emphasized the importance of sequestering CO2 at the CTL plants to avoid emitting it to the atmosphere - Montana is blessed, he feels, with geological traps for the purpose - some with left-over oil in need of tertiary recovery, and some empty ones for good measure. Yes, this involves strip-mining coal, but they have had lots of practice restoring the land. There's solid waste, but at least we'll be able to sequester it all in one place (and I guess he's offering his state for the purpose). He has now developed something of a story on the hydrogen input to the process. Recall that we had a good comment stream calling the governor on his earlier claim that new CTL processes didn't require water:
Water needs, traditionally an enormous hurdle, have been all but eliminated with the advent of a process that actually produces water with its excess hydrogen and oxygen.This is impossible, of course, since coal is mainly carbon, and since chain hydrocarbons are roughly (CH2)^n, the hydrogen has to come from somewhere, with the only likely bulk sources of hydrogen being water or natural gas. What he now says ("get out your calculators, cowboys") is that the lignite coal in Montana contains typically 40% water (by weight? - he didn't specify), and thus has enough hydrogen, together with other unspecified water sources "colocated with the coal", that we shouldn't worry.
In general, he agrees that environmental questions are "fair game", and that these projects should be held to high environmental standards.
One thing I had a problem with was the carbon emission/climate change angle on this. I don't think the governor was untruthful, but I do think he's engaging in a certain amount of misdirection when he talks at great length about the importance of, and the possibilities for, sequestering the CO2 from the CTL plants themselves. A high-yield Fischer-Tropsch type process should be taking most of that carbon currently buried in the ground and wrapping it in hydrogen to put in your and my fuel tank, and those of our trucker friends. Yes, some C will probably be burned to CO2 at the plant to power the process, and hopefully Gov. Schweitzer will be as good as his word about sequestering it, but a good deal is going to end up going out of our collective exhaust pipe rather than staying where it is now.
I used my questions to press the governor on this point. I'm of the opinion that we face a dual crisis here: we are reaching the point where we can see the end of oil, and at the same time, we are reaching the point where we can see that we are starting to make massive, probably irreversible, changes to our climate. The glaciers are in full retreat almost everywhere, the Arctic is melting (with total melting of the summer sea ice possible, though not certain, as early as 2020), the permafrost is melting, and releasing large amounts of methane, which is a very powerful global warming gas, while in the last thirty years, droughts have doubled due to warming, hurricanes are much more intense all over the globe, and are showing up in places they never did before in recorded history. Scientists have been projecting changes in ocean circulation, and lo-and-behold, they are starting to show up, including changes to the North Atlantic Circulation, although major change here was previously thought unlikely this century. There is some possibility of changes in deepwater circulation destabilizing methane hydrates in the ocean, particularly in South East Asian deeps. Oh, and the Greenland ice sheet is now melting much faster than climatologists expected, and the West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse, though again, this was previously thought unlikely. Also paleoclimatological studies have made it clear that in the past the climate abruptly flipped between modes, sometimes with dramatic change in as little as three years. And we are making rapid changes in carbon dioxide, known to be critically important in regulating the temperature of this sensitive climatic system for a century now.
Ok, maybe there's some scientific doubt still on any individual piece of the picture, but the gestalt is starting to look extremely alarming - positive feedback loops are entering the picture and making everything go faster than expected. I don't know about you, but this is all starting to seem like a serious threat to my kids, never mind my grandkids. So how many more decades of cheap hydrocarbon fuel use should we sign up for here? How cheap is our cheap gas going to be really, in the end? How much of that Montana coal should end up in the atmosphere, exactly?
The governor doesn't really have a great answer on this one. He agrees that some of his Montana coal will end up going out vehicle tailpipes under his plan, and he agrees that climate change is a big issue. He feels we need to move to a hydrogen/renewables economy in the long term. But he notes that this is not a problem Montana can solve alone; it needs national leadership which is utterly absent at present, and in any case we are going to have to have some bridge fuel to get us there.
Kari Chisholm at Western Democrat asked what are the barriers to a CTL plant. The governor discussed the fact that although such plants are thought to be profitable as long as oil prices stay above $35-$42, they are very capital intensive and perceived as risky as long as few have been done in the US. (Apparently 12 are under way in China, and there is one little one operating in North Dakota). Thus the governor feels federal loan guarantees will help, and that is now secured courtesy of the recent federal energy bill.
Scott Shields of MyDD asked about the timeline. The governor's view is it will take a couple of years to permit a coal mine in Montana, and three to four years to build a CTL plant. So he thinks 5-6 years minimum before a first such plant could be operating.
One particularly interesting part of the conversation arose when Scott Shields asked what the governor thought would happen to Saudi Arabia if indeed the US achieved energy independence. Since the governor spent six or seven years living in Saudi Arabia in the eighties (installing irrigation systems - he trained as an agronomist and has worked in agriculture most of his life until he got into politics) his views seemed relevant. He outlined how hardline and conservative the Saudi Wahhabists are, and then said:
There will be a revolution in Saudia Arabia, it will be sooner rather than later, and when it happens, the people who take it over are going to make the people who run Iran look like a bunch of liberals.I bet we'd be able to see that event good and strong even on a Hubbert linearization of Saudi oil production.
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