Fuel Gauge

By John Reed / January 21, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Air Force officials have delayed the decision on whether to built a privately owned coal-to-liquids refinery on unused land at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, service officials tell Inside the Air Force.

Air Force Times, citing a service spokesman, reported this week that the Air Force was expected to announce the results of the decision -- which was supposed to have been made last Friday -- this afternoon.

However, “Due to some technical issues and clarifications that still need to be made, no decision was made on Friday,” reads a Jan 21 e-mail from the same Air Force spokesman, Gary Strasburg. The decision likely will be made in the next two weeks, said Stasburg later this afternoon. He did not elaborate on the reasons behind the delay.

If built, the refinery could produce up to 20,000 gallons of coal-based fuel each day, Air Force officials said in late 2007 when they announced plans to build the plant. Service energy officials have long touted the plant as a major step toward the service's ultimate goal of being able to fly 50 percent of all stateside missions on synthetic fuel by 2016.

The Malmstrom plant would sit on property leased to its operators at a discount in exchange for a significant price break on the fuel produced there. The Minuteman III ICBM base -- which no longer has fixed-wing flight operations -- has plenty of unused land and sits near some of the world's largest coal deposits, service officials have said.

The plan to use coal-based synthetic fuel in Air Force planes has come under scrutiny over the past year as opponents have pointed out that so called “clean coal” technology does not exist outside of the laboratory. Using current technology, coal-based fuel emits far more greenhouse gases than standard jet fuel. Furthermore, Section 526 of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act prohibits the service from buying fuel that emits more greenhouse gases than conventional fuel.

This could be a major hurdle in getting investors to pony up the billions in cash for such a plant because the Air Force would not be able to sign long-term contracts for fuel that pollutes more than standard jet fuel.

However, Kevin Billings -- acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, logistics and environment -- told Inside the Air Force last week that the service is launching a plan to certify its planes to fly on biofuels made from feedstocks like algae and biomass. He did not provide a time line for this effort.