Riverview Energy’s coal-to-diesel and global climate change

To the editor:

I write to you as a climate scientist here at Indiana University. The Riverview Energy Corporation has proposed a coal-to-diesel plant for Dale, Indiana. At the same time, we are in a critical race to reduce our production of carbon dioxide (CO2). Burning coal creates more CO2 by far than any other fuel, forcing us to shift away from the burning of coal.

However, Riverview Energy is not burning coal. They are simply converting it to diesel. Isn’t this good? Unfortunately, Riverview’s coal-to-diesel results in even more CO2 in our atmosphere than if they were simply burning the coal.

Let’s take a close look at Riverview Energy’s coal-to-diesel numbers. Riverview tells us that their plant will produce 2.2-2.8 MT (million tons) of CO2 to convert 1.6 MT (million tons) of coal to 4.8 Mbbls (million barrels) of diesel and 2.5 Mbbls of naphtha each year. It is straight-forward to convert these Riverview numbers to total CO2 produced. A direct comparison is useful: 5.5 to 6.1 MT CO2 from the Dale plant, 4.1 MT CO2 from burning 1.6 MT of coal, and essentially 0 MT CO2 from renewable fuels.

In summary the coal-to-diesel conversion is substantially worse than if Riverview had chosen to simply burn the 1.6 MT of coal directly. All the carbon in the coal is eventually converted to CO2, and the conversion itself adds another CO2 burden!

The economics of coal-to-diesel is also problematic. The Biden Administration and both houses of Congress are working on fee-and-dividend legislation where a starting fee of $40 per ton of CO2 will be levied on producers of CO2. This legislation is specifically designed to limit damage from climate change by forcing the reduction of CO2 production. It will increase both the cost of Riverview’s 1.6 MT of input coal and the 2.2-2.8 MT CO2 produced in the conversion process, making it even more difficult to compete with natural gas and with rapidly growing sources of renewable energy.

Dale certainly does not want or need a failed coal-to-diesel plant.

—Bennet B. Brabson
Emeritus Professor of Physics and Climate Scientist, Indiana University, Bloomington

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