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Coal in cars: great fuel or climate foe?

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Coal companies want to fuel your car and lately, they're getting a lot of political support for the idea.

Turning coal into gasoline-like fuel has several advantages. It would use America's vast coal reserves. It would reduce the nation's thirst for foreign oil and help dampen spikes in energy prices. There's just one problem: It is not "climate friendly" – at least, not yet.

Coal-to-liquids (CTL) fuels could end up emitting nearly double the carbon dioxide that the equivalent amount of gasoline does, mostly because of the way it's manufactured. The CTL industry says new technology will fix the problem. But because such technology is not yet developed, it's unclear whether CTL fuels would be competitive without state and federal subsidies, even competing against high-priced diesel, jet fuel, or gasoline, analysts say.

That's where politicians come in. The National Mining Association has ramped up Capitol Hill lobbying, creating a new coalition and website, futurecoalfuels.org. Many in Washington are warming to the idea. CTL bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate have received strong backing.

"We have a very good chance of getting legislation passed in this Congress because momentum continues to grow," says Corey Henry, a spokesman for the Coal-to-Liquids Coalition, which includes coal producers and CTL developers. "It's one energy solution that does enjoy broad bipartisan support."

Supporters of the bill range from Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois to President Bush. In his State of the Union speech Jan. 23, Mr. Bush called for the United States to produce 35 billion gallons of "alternative fuel" by 2017. The nation doesn't grow enough corn to meet even half that total. By setting that goal and using the term "alternative" rather than "renewable" fuel, the president was making the case for CTL, some analysts say.

"To me, the president's speech was all about turning coal into liquid fuel," says Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a think tank focused on energy security.

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