MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. - On a wind-swept air base near the Missouri River, the Air Force has launched an ambitious plan to wean itself from foreign oil by turning to a new and unlikely source: coal.
The Air Force wants to build at its Malmstrom base in central Montana the first piece of what it hopes will be a nationwide network of facilities that would convert domestic coal into cleaner-burning synthetic fuel.
Air Force officials said the plants could help neutralize a national security threat by tapping into the country's abundant coal reserves. And by offering itself as a partner in the Malmstrom plant, the Air Force hopes to prod Wall Street investors - nervous over coal's role in climate change - to sink money into similar plants nationwide.
"We're going to be burning fossil fuels for a long time, and there's three times as much coal in the ground as there are oil reserves," said Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson. "Guess what? We're going to burn coal."
Tempering that vision, analysts say, is the astronomical cost of coal-to-liquids plants. Their high price tag, up to $5 billion apiece, would be hard to justify if oil prices were to drop. In addition, coal has drawn wide opposition on Capitol Hill, where some leading lawmakers reject claims it can be transformed into a clean fuel. Without emissions controls, experts say coal-to-liquids plants could churn out double the greenhouse gases as oil.
"We don't want new sources of energy that are going to make the greenhouse gas problem even worse," House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said in a recent interview.
The Air Force would not finance, construct or operate the coal plant. Instead, it has offered private developers a 700-acre site on the base and a promise that it would be a ready customer as the government's largest fuel consumer.
Bids on the project are due in May. Construction is expected to take four years once the Air Force selects a developer.
Anderson said the Air Force plans to fuel half its North American fleet with a synthetic-fuel blend by 2016. To do so, it would need 400 million gallons of coal-based fuel annually.
With the Air Force paving the way, Anderson said the private sector would follow - from commercial air fleets to long-haul trucking companies.
"Because of our size, we can move the market along," he said. "Whether it's (coal-based) diesel that goes into Wal-Mart trucks or jet fuel that goes into our fighters, all that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, which is the endgame."