In its endeavour to attain fuel sufficiency for the country, Botswana Oil Limited (BOL) has decided to embark on Coal to Liquid (CTL) technology, converting coal into liquid fuels (Coal liquefaction) and petrochemicals, a controversial method that has alarmed environmental campaigners who say it will increase carbon emissions and worsen global warming. The CTL technology was first developed by Germany during the Second World War to convert coal directly into synthetic diesel, dubbed “Nazi fuel”.
Experts the world over have provided conflicting assessments on the pros and cons of this technology which uses a process often known as “Coal to X”, where X can be many different hydrocarbon-based products. However, the most common process chain is “Coal to Liquid Fuels” (CTL), which Botswana Oil Limited has opted for.
The CTL technology is not unique to Botswana as other countries such as China, Japan, the US, Australia, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Africa have mulled at the idea of adopting it. In fact, China has already opened a chemical plant to make liquid fuels for cars and aircraft from coal even though it has expressed concern about the possible environmental impact if the expansion of plants is not controlled. China opened the plant in Inner Mongolia amidst condemnation from environmentalists as the country vowed it wanted to break its booming economy’s reliance on foreign oil. The US and India were also reported to be investing heavily in the technology, which is being heavily promoted by coal companies across the world as a cost-effective solution to soaring oil prices and concerns about energy security. Three similar plants were built in South Africa to beat the apartheid-era oil sanctions, and still produce almost a third of South Africa’s energy needs. The UK’s Guardian reported as early as 2008 that Botswana was harbouring intentions to embark on CTL technology.
A 2007 study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences hailed the production of liquid fuels from coal as practically the most feasible route to cope with the dilemma in oil supply. Companies that promote the coal-to-liquids technique claim it is clean, because contaminants such as sulphur are removed from coal during the process. Some also herald it as a way to fight global warming, despite the industry’s own figures, which show that converting and burning the liquid coal together releases almost twice the carbon pollution as using conventional diesel.
However, Nick Rau, a climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth has been quoted saying the move was “in totally the wrong direction”. He added: “We have great concerns about the rush to develop new sources of energy-intensive energies such as synthetic fuels from coal. We know they are technically feasible and it looks like they are going to happen, unless more people emphasise the sustainable options available.”
Luke Warren of the World Coal Institute was also quoted admitting that the process was “carbon dioxide intensive”, but said the greenhouse gas could be captured and stored underground. However, even capturing the carbon may not solve the problem. An analysis by the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is quoted arguing that liquid fuels from coal, even with carbon capture and storage employed, would still produce at least 20% more carbon dioxide than petrol and diesel made from oil. The energy-intensive conversion plants also require massive amounts of cooling water to stop them overheating. Botswana Oil Limited might find itself in a predicament given the water scarcity in the country.
Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have found the gas-to-liquids process is typically some 7-16% worse for global warming than using oil. Adam Brandt and Alexander Farrell of the university’s energy and resources group are reported to have said a widespread transition to both gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids technology was looking “increasingly likely” but warned such “unconventional petroleum production could be a significant source of additional carbon dioxide unless mitigation steps are taken”.
Farrell is quoted by the UK Guardian as having said, “If companies are marketing these fuels as environmentally friendly then they are misleading people. At best, they could be as good as [existing] fossil fuels, but is that what we want in a world where we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions?’’
Botswana Oil Limited (BOL) was established in 2013 to support the government of Botswana to achieve two broad, national economic objectives, being; to ensure the security and efficiency of fuel supply to Botswana and promote active citizen involvement in the petroleum industry. Despite promising to respond to our enquiries within 24 hours last Thursday, Botswana Oil Government and Stakeholder Relations Manager Matida Mmipi had not responded at the time of going for print on Monday.