free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 43. COAL LIQUEFACTION

Monday, August 22, 2005


Coal liquefaction is going to play a big role on the downslope, so let's note a few things about it:

1) The sound bite that "oil is a feedstock with no substitutes" is a myth (see #30). All petrochemicals can be made from liquefied coal, and coal gas (syn gas). There is no significant difference in chemistry between natural crude oil and synthetic crude produced from coal (except that synthetic crude is a lot cleaner). Detergents, pesticides, fertilizer, plastics, synthetic fibers and synthetic rubber can all be made from coal. Also, coal can be profitably liquefied in the U.S. today, provided that the price of crude oil stays above $35/bbl.

2) Clearly, these new synthetic liquids are going to be called "oil". They are chemically identical to oil products, and they do the same jobs as oil products. They will also be mixed together with oil products in the refining step. It's really pointless to separate the two.
This means that coal reserves are in fact oil reserves. Total recoverable coal reserves in the U.S. are estimated at about 250 billion short tons. At 20,754,000 btus/short ton, the U.S. has 5.2 x 10^18 btus of recoverable coal reserves. The thermal efficiency of coal liquefaction is about 65%. So if we liquefy the coal reserves of the U.S., we get 3.4 x 10^18 btus of synthetic oil. There are about 5.8 x 10^6 btus in a barrel of oil, so total reserves of oil located in coal reserves in the U.S. is roughly 5.9 x 10^11 barrels = 590 giga barrels. That's about 80 years of oil at current U.S. consumption rates of 20 mbd.
The point is not that all of that coal will be liquefied. However, a substantial portion of it will be, and that portion needs to be reclassified as "new oil". ASPO prints the following graph in its newsletter every month as proof that we must peak soon because discoveries are not keeping up with production (click on the images for a clearer picture):

Note that the "discoveries" do not include include new oil from coal (or from heavy, tar sands, deep water, polar, shale, gas-to-liquids, sugar cane ethanol or any other unconventional source). This is a major error which undermines ASPO's argument. The discoveries of unconventional oil must also be factored in.

3) We have way more coal than we had oil.
Crude oil URR (ultimate recoverable reserves) for the U.S. appears to be in the neighborhood of about 205 Gbarrels.

On the other hand, if we liquefy all recoverable coal reserves in the U.S., we have a total of about 590 Gbarrels (as calculated in 2) above). The U.S. has about 3 times as much potential oil available in the form of coal as all the oil it has ever pumped (or will pump).

Since U.S. oil maxed out at a rate of 10mbd on a reserve basis of 205 Gbarrels, an intensive effort to produce coal liquids might potentially max out a rate 3 times that (about 30mbd) because the resource base is 3 times larger.


At Monday, August 22, 2005 at 8:11:00 AM PDT, Blogger James Shannon said...

Governor Schweitzer of Montana has heavily promoted using the vast supplies of coal for this very purpose, when commenting on the high crude prices last month. There was a diary on it on Daily Kos, but I couldn't find it through a search. If I do find it (or another news article on it), I'll post it here!

At Monday, August 22, 2005 at 9:24:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, let us turn all that coal into oil and forget all about climate change. Climate change doesn't exist. Sure.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 at 9:48:00 AM PDT, Blogger James Shannon said...

Climate change does exist (a problem with consequences as bad as PO), but there are emission scrubbers that can be employed to greatly mitigate any greenhouse gases. They aren't used as much as they can because the government doesn't force industry to do so. Coal IMO is a stopgap measure until we can scale up alternative energy sources to a point where they could take over for coal.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 at 9:52:00 AM PDT, Blogger James Shannon said...

P.S. Nobody (not JD, not I) said that all coal (or even a majority) would be converted to oil. It will be a jigsaw piece in the energy mosaic that will power the 1st half of the 21st century.

Also, with regard to greenhouse gases, the largest contributor to their levels are cars (I think). By reducing car use, and switching them over to more enviromentally-friendly biofuels, this large piece of the CO^2 pie can be reduced in size by a considerable amount.

At Wednesday, April 26, 2006 at 5:46:00 AM PDT, Blogger Mel. Hauser said...

As optimistic a front as I like to maintain on this whole bloody mess, I can see the switchoff to coal becoming way too comfortable for American industry, way too fast.

We've handled ourselves like a bunch of drunk-ass monkeys juggling lit dynamite with resources up to this point; having a corner market on a major energy asset during the PO slide-off is, IMHO, going to exacerbate our general attitude problems considerably.

But on the other hand, this will cause a reactionary movement away from dependency on our coal markets by other developed countries. Nobody wants to deal with the biggest brat on the block, especially if it's still sucking a sore thumb over the loss of its massive suck-take of petroleum.

At Tuesday, May 22, 2007 at 1:53:00 PM PDT, Blogger UseCmmnSense said...

Silly People, what is the biggest green house gas?... water vapor.
Mt. Pinatubo put more grenn house gasses into the atmosphere than all
cars ever built..... The planet is warmer, but so are Mars and Neptune... The increase in Neptunes temperature and brightness coincides with stronger irradiation from the Sun.... quit drinking the cool-ade. The air in the U.S. is cleaner than ever.

At Sunday, September 2, 2007 at 11:56:00 AM PDT, Blogger jackg said...

jackg said: two-stage coal liquefaction was practiced at wilsonville, alabama in 1981-1985. the product syncrude, being highly aromatic, is an excellent high-octane gasoline precursor. unlike conventional petroleum, the syncrude contains no residuum, i.e. the product slate is all distillate. product yield was 3.1 bbl/ton and economic forecasts for a commercial plant were 38.00 per bbl which places a lid on how much those theiving arabs can charge us. the wilsonville plant was shut down after 1985 on orders from the houston oil millionaires who did not want competition from synthetics (remember they paid for reagan's election).

At Monday, June 23, 2008 at 8:32:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did the ultimate reserves number of 205 Gigabarrles of crude oil in the USA originate? The numbers I have seen refer to known reservers of 30 to 40 Gigabarrels with a 50% chance of finding another 19 Gigabarrels by exploring offshore areas currently prohibited. 50 to 60 Gigabarrels is far short of the 205 Gigabarrels mentioned.


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