The High Cost of Coal-to-Liquids John W. Rich, Jr. hopes to bring a coal-to-liquids plant to Pennsylvania

John W. Rich, Jr., president of Waste Management and Processors, believes the solution to America’s energy crisis lies in this heap of waste. Since 1997, Rich has pursued an $800 million coal-to-liquids (CLT) plant in rural Mahanoy Township, Pennsylvania. He was the first to propose building a CLT plant in the U.S.

Using South African technology, the plant would take coal waste and transform it into a fuel Rich claims is more environmentally friendly than conventional gasoline. But environmental groups charge that this “clean” technology is downright filthy.

Nonetheless, the project has political traction. Pennsylvania’s state government has agreed to buy fuel from Rich, and its congressional representatives are vocal supporters. According to Rich, fuel produced at his plant would reduce greenhouse gases and provide a ready source of American energy, in sharp contrast to the instability of Mideast oil. “We are cleaner, we are safer and we are cheaper,” Rich says. “We are cleaning up the atmosphere.”

Those claims are hard to support. Although the plant would produce fuel that is virtually free of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, the process of making it would spew more than 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere each year.

A Department of Energy (DOE) review of the project concedes that the facility would emit CO2 at levels 80 percent above those produced by oil refining and automotive exhaust. Rich counters that diesel made at his plant will cut oil consumption, thereby reducing greenhouse gasses. And despite its own caveats, DOE approved the environmental impact statement needed for Rich to receive a $100 million federal loan to build the plant.

Mike Ewall, director of the Philadelphia-based ActionPA, has fought Rich’s proposal since its inception. Besides CO2, Ewall points out, the plant would produce toxic coal ash, 400 tons of sludge, and discharge 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater into local creeks. “This is the worst way we could produce liquid fuels,” he says.

Sharon Chiao, chairwoman of Mahanoy Township’s supervisors, says residents are divided over the CTL plant. The promise of jobs and rising gasoline prices has led some people to support the project, but many are worried about pollution, she says. Chiao herself believes the plant will harm residents and she’s fighting to keep it out of the area.

“This is about wanting to live healthy lives,” she says.