Sucker meat 

The unexamined costs of coal-to-liquid

Long ago an old fisherman told me, “if you want to catch the big ones, you gotta use sucker meat.” Somehow, it seems like that advice has made its way to considerably higher levels these days, and is now being employed by the governor’s office to “catch the big ones” on coal development. The question, however, is just who is getting suckered.

When Montanans opened their papers this week, they were met with the headline “Governor announces coal-to-liquid plant.” What followed was the governor’s full-blown endorsement of plans to build a new 300-megawatt coal-fueled power plant that would also produce an estimated 22,000 barrels per day of synthetic diesel fuel.

The process that will supposedly be used in the new plant—and I say “supposedly” because there is no detailed permit application yet—is known as IGCC in the vernacular of energy wonks, and stands for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle. What it actually does is superheat coal or other low-level fuels and combine them with pure oxygen to produce a synthetic gas that is then burned like natural gas to drive electricity-generating turbines. The advantage of IGCC is that many of the hazardous byproduct pollutants such as mercury, ammonia, sulfur and particulates can be removed prior to burning the gas, which is cheaper and easier than the conventional method of trying to remove them from the exhaust stream as it goes up the stack.

In his gushing endorsement, Gov. Schweitzer lauded the proposed plant as “clean and green,” but that’s putting the cart way out in front of the horse. How so? Well, as it turns out, certain key items that would make the plant truly “green” were simply omitted from the “economic assessment” that was announced by Evan Barrett, the former director of Butte’s economic development efforts who now heads the Governor’s Economic Development Office. The glowing assessment that accompanied the governor’s press release predicted unbelievably massive economic benefits, thousands of jobs, and millions in taxes and payrolls.

What the assessment, which was produced by the Center for Applied Economic Research, MSU Billings, didn’t include, however, was any consideration of the costs or the problems in dealing with the massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a primary global warming gas produced in the IGCC process. This very costly and complex process, known as carbon sequestration, affects everything from the amount of coal necessary for operation to the final cost of the energy produced—but it was simply swept under the rug.

The capture, compression and storage of CO2 in underground formations under intense pressure requires both considerable physical infrastructure as well as legal infrastructure that is currently nonexistent in Montana. We may or may not have suitable geologic formations for storing the CO2 near the proposed plant in Roundup, but the compressors and pipelines to carry it do not exist. Nor do we have the legal framework that will determine who will be liable if and when such massive quantities of highly-compressed gas blast free due to either a natural occurrence, such as an earthquake, or the blowout of some old plugged well. These are both big deals, and without considering them Schweitzer is on shaky footing to suggest that the operation of any such plant would be “green.”

And then there’s the horrific environmental record of the company that owns the coal, Bull Mountain Companies. In a rare, perhaps first-ever action, the mining permit for Bull Mountain’s operations was revoked by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for repeated environmental violations and non-payment of fines. Likewise, a permit for a proposed mine-mouth power plant was rescinded by the state because the company didn’t meet deadlines for construction to begin. The governor’s assertion that “this is a private deal, I’m not taking any credit” is also a little off-base because, truth be told, the permit that had expired, and was legally mandated for revocation, was reissued by DEQ personnel after being pressured by direct orders from the governor’s office.

And finally, there’s the overwhelming but unanswered question of “where are they going to get the water?” While the IGCC process uses less water than conventional coal-fired power plants, the quantities are still enormous. The coal-to-liquid process, which promoters say will produce 22,000 barrels of synthetic diesel a day, is also intensely water consumptive. As anyone who has been to Roundup can testify, water is a scarce and high-valued commodity there.

The Musselshell River, which flows (to use the word loosely) through Roundup, used to be clean and plentiful enough that freshwater mussels thrived there. But in recent times, thanks to massive withdrawals from upstream irrigators, this once-wonderful river has fallen on hard times and is sometimes reduced to still pools connected by tiny rivulets.

Then there’s the Yellowstone River—but to get water from the Yellowstone to Roundup would require construction of yet another currently nonexistent pipeline and massive pumps to push it over the hills. And like the infrastructure necessary for carbon sequestration, neither the availability nor the costs of process water were included in the economic assessment passed out by the governor’s economic development cheerleaders.

Instead, what we got was high-profile promotion of a very preliminary proposal that ignores massive costs and serious questions while hiding behind a process, IGCC, that could be green if done right. Unfortunately, and as we have seen before, while “doing it right” has been a catch-phrase for this administration, all too often the state winds up doing it wrong when it comes to industrial permitting.

Bait and switch is a common corporate technique whereby promised environment-protecting technologies, the bait, get switched to dirtier methods for any number of reasons—the usual being cost to the consumer. In this case, there’s a big hunk of sucker meat dangling before us. But beware, fellow Montanans. Given the environmental track record of the coal company and the lack of specifics in the proposal, it’s likely hiding a wickedly barbed hook.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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