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Air Force scraps coal-to-liquid plant


The Air Force has rejected private proposals to build a coal-to-liquid fuels plant at Malmstrom Air Force Base, saying it could interfere with ballistic missile operations at the base.

The agency last year had invited companies to finance and build a plant that would convert coal into 25,000 barrels daily of jet fuel, diesel and other products.

The proposal was part of a plan to help the U.S. find alternatives to foreign oil. The Air Force wants to power half of its domestic fleet with such synthetic fuels by 2016, under a program begun under former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.

However, using coal as the “feedstock” for those fuels has drawn opposition from environmentalists, who say it could exacerbate global warming. An Air Force official would not say whether those concerns also contributed to dropping the Malmstrom pro- posal.

Strasburg said a review by Air Force experts determined the private corporate proposals to build a plant near Great Falls were “not viable.”

The review, which was not made public, was said to cite possible conflicts with Malmstrom’s role as one of three U.S. Air Force bases that maintain and operate the Minuteman III nuclear missile. Those included security risks, interference with missile transportation operations and “explosive safety arcs and flight safety issues.”

The Air Force has refused to say how many companies put in bids to build the plant.

The Air Force in 2006 began certifying synthetic fuels for use in its fleet of warplanes.

Strasburg said that program would continue and the Air Force was still interested in coal as a possible fuel source. But the Air Force is not actively pursuing a production plant at any other base, he said.

“It’s still a possibility, just not at that particular location,” Strasburg said. “We’ve already certified (planes) using natural gas to liquid fuels and flown aircraft using coal-to-liquid, and we have not noticed any difference between the two.”

The initiative was part of a broader program to develop a reliable source of domestically produced synthetic fuels for the military. Backers of that effort have said it would ease the country’s dependence on oil from volatile regions such as the Middle East.

Although test flights have proven successful, they have not satisfied concerns over the environmental drawbacks of producing coal-based fuels, which can emit more greenhouse gases than petroleum.

The Air Force has been under pressure from Congress to abide by a 2007 energy law that says federal agencies can’t purchase fuels with more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels.

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