It has been possible since the early 1950s to build a commercial-scale facility that will convert carbon-based waste materials to electrical power, heating and cooling energy, liquid fuels, industrial chemicals and other high-value products. The technology has not yet been economically viable owing to the very low cost of crude oil and lack of concern regarding our impact on the environment.

With changes in both those situations, it is now economically beneficial to use waste in this way and divert 100% of non-nuclear wastes from landfills while converting all the carbon recovered in the process to additional valuable products ranging from fuels to pharmaceuticals.

The Dakota Gasification Company produces more than 50 billion standard cubic feet of synthetic natural gas annually (as well as other chemicals) from coal quite profitably and has been doing so since 1984. The Eastman Chemical Company has been using coal to manufacture a wide variety of chemicals for industrial uses since 1983. Sasol has a facility in South Africa producing more than 150,000 barrels of liquid fuels per day from coal and has only recently converted another facility to use natural gas for the same purpose -- and they have been doing this since 1955.

The process that converts coal to chemicals, synthetic natural gas and liquid fuels will -- and in several facilities around the globe, already does -- operate using municipal solid waste as well as wastes from other processes.

In our fast-paced world, pitchmen realize that people don’t have the time anymore to do independent, in-depth research and need to decide whom to trust and base their choices and preferences on those recommendations.

Tax credits for natural gas vehicles have existed since at least 2004 and were originally set to expire in September of 2006. Members of Congress and several powerful lobbies have been fighting to keep alive a solution that has failed to gain traction over the past seven years. Some have even managed to lobby for increases in the credits available by including the infrastructure necessary to deliver natural gas to the vehicles in which they would like to see it used.

T. Boone Pickens keeps talking about 8 million big-rig trucks converted to run on natural gas and, at a retrofit cost of $65,000 each, that is over $450 billion just for the vehicles. Despite the claims of Mr. Pickens that he wants only one billion dollars a year from taxpayers for five years and then the industry will pay the rest, the bill does not specify any such limit, nor does it address the use of these funds only in California, as Mr. Pickens suggests.

Add infrastructure to this generous gift and the U.S. taxpayer could easily end up on the hook for more than the Wall Street bailout. At least the bailout has been or will be repaid. In the case of natural gas vehicles, these are tax credits and cannot be recovered. This is the money that Congress and the president need to pay for defense, transportation, energy, healthcare, Medicare and Social Security. Do we really want to risk these funds on a fuel that will only last 40 to 50 years at current proven reserve levels?

At the end of that time, we will likely have to pay to convert to either all-electric vehicles or return to liquid fuels such as biodiesel or synthetic diesel and butanol or synthetic gasoline. While electric vehicles would certainly be preferred, there will be no natural gas left to fuel the power plants to generate the electricity.

The Pickens Plan is predicated on the claim that natural gas is cheaper than coal. In the limited vision of natural gas being used directly as a fuel in vehicles, that may well be the case -- sometimes. Natural gas, however, has a history as the most volatile fuel in terms of price. Mr. Pickens has not once mentioned where the largest reserves of natural gas are located worldwide. It’s possible that he neglects to do so because the proven recoverable reserves are, in descending order of volume, in Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Nigeria.

Proven recoverable reserves of natural gas in the United States, according to the U.S. DOE, are almost 285 trillion cubic feet, with current annual usage of approximately 22 trillion cubic feet. Mathematically, this translates to only 15 years of reserves. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has long been used to free natural gas and oil from shale formations and, in fact, is responsible for the net increase in reserves seen in 2009. This process is not as great a threat to groundwater supplies as some would prefer to believe, but it does highlight the question: where does the water for fracking come from? Some additional reserves will certainly be brought to bear, but is this an acceptable way to spend half a trillion dollars just to build the equipment to use this fuel and millions of gallons of water that might otherwise be used for crops or human consumption? Would we be better served by other choices?

A number of companies, including MarGin Consulting, have developed technologies specifically designed to convert non-nuclear waste to militarily important and infrastructure-ready liquid fuels; electrical power for the regional grid; heating and cooling in a district energy system; and chemicals for industry and agriculture. Liquid fuels in today’s market can be manufactured in this process at prices competitive with crude oil at less than $85/bbl.

The technology exists, but the prevailing paradigm must shift from one of continuing operations within corporate comfort zones to one of expansion through cooperation. International alliances won two world wars; corporate alliances will lead us to economic security.


Martin Ginsburg is the manager of MarGin Consulting.

Photo by D'Arcy Norman via Creative Commons.