Synfuels: No Panacea

THE SENATE FINANCE Committee's recent approval of $17 billion in tax breaks for producers of synthetic fuels and for businesses that use conventional energy sources such as solar power represents a great improvement over an earlier $54 billion version of the bill. The new bill, which slows the push for synthetic fuels, recognizes that the "man-on-the-moon" crash program for synthetic fuels proposed during the summer by President Carter presented several dangers.

Since the Arab oil embargo nearly every major oil company has been researching technologies for cost-competitive production of fuels from coal, shale and tar sands, with little regard for the environmental consequences. Replacing just ten per cent of the nation's oil production with liquefied coal would require a mining capacity equal to one half of the present U. S. coal output. This would require heavy strip mining, which causes devastating damage to the land.

In addition, serious questions remain as to how to dispose of the ton of waste rock that is a by-product of every barrel of synthetic fuel produced. And such projects would also consume enormous quantities of water, a resource as scarce to the West as oil is to New England.

The larger issue of continued reliance on fossil fuels must be considered as well, particularly with regard to coal. Carbon dioxide is believed to have potential to do irreversible damage to the earth through what is known as the "greenhouse effect."

Fortunately, the only obstacle that means anything to oil companies--cost--may be decisive in the future of synthetic fuels. Cost estimates for liquefied coal have climbed from $7.50 per barrel of oil equivalent in 1973 to $20 in 1977, and they are still rising. Nevertheless, oil companies have pushed synthetic fuels as the solution to America's problem of dependence on OPEC. And President Carter's proposal for an $88 billion investment in synfuels shows that he swallowed the oil company line.

ANY REASONABLE ENERGY PLAN must stress conservation and a wide variety of renewable energy sources. Our energy choices should not be determined by what is most profitable to the oil companies; the environmental and social costs of any energy alternative must also be carefully weighed.

Synthetic fuels deserve some study as a possible psychological weapon against OPEC pricing policies, but they are no panacea. The Senate Finance Committee's moderation of Carter's crash program is a step in the right direction.