Wyoming fights to rescue coal
Statemulls ideas for fading fossil fuel industry.
cheyenne » Public enemy No. 1 for climate change and no longer the fossil fuel that utilities prefer to burn to generate electricity, coal has fewallies these days. But one state is still fighting to save the industry: Wyoming.
From a proposal to burn the stuff underground to hosting a contest to find profitable uses for carbon dioxide from power plants, the top coal- producing state has spent tens of millions of dollars for a coal savior— with little to show.
Big- time state spending was easy in Wyoming not long ago. Good times for coal, oil and natural gas created huge budget surpluses.
Now that all three industries are suffering from low prices, looming deficits in the Cowboy State are raising an old question: Is it time to diversify the economy beyond fossil fuels?
“They’ve chosen to support the coal industrywhether itmakes any sense or not. I mean, we’re basically a coal colony,” said Bob LeResche, chairman of thePowder River Basin Resource Council landowners group.
Some of the coal industry’s top players, including Arch Coal and Alpha NaturalResources, have filed for bankruptcy as utilities switch to cheaper and cleaner- burning natural gas and the cost of renewable energy keeps falling. The Obama administration on Friday suspended the leasing programfor coal on federal lands, most of which occur in Wyoming and neighboringMontana.
Will a Superman for coal come to the rescue in time?
“The odds look pretty slim right now,” said Rob Godby, a University ofWyoming professor.
The stakes for Wyoming are high. Coal mining and directly related business account for 14 percent of the economy and 1 in 5 jobs in the state.
Here’s a look at whatWyoming has done — often at public expense — to try to save coal:
Underground coal gasification: Wyoming regulators recently agreed to let an Australian company pollute groundwater to experiment with a use for coal that doesn’t involve burning it in a power plant.
Underground coal gasification involves partially burning coal still in the ground. The process yields amix of gases called syngas, which can be burned more cleanly than coal directly.
The process leaves a chemical brew in the ground. Regulators in Queensland, Australia, accuse Linc of causing serious environmental harm at underground coal gasification projects there.
Carbon sequestration: Six years ago, the University of Wyoming’s Carbon Management Institute began investigating whether a 25square- mile area in southwest Wyoming could trap carbon dioxide emitted from power plants.
The institute spent $ 17 million of taxpayer money drilling a 12,000- foot- deep well in 2011. But it stopped because researchers realized it would cost as much as $ 750 million to acquire enough carbon dioxide to complete the experiment.
Coal- to- liquid fuel: Turning coal into diesel, gasoline and other liquid fuels isn’t a new idea. Germany did it during World War II and a company proposed it in Wyoming as oil prices began to creep toward record highs in 2007.
The $ 2 billion DKRW Advanced Fuels plant outside the tiny town of Medicine Bow in southern Wyoming never got off the drawing board — except for a couple of concrete pads and $ 1.9million in state funding to rebuild 13 miles of road for the project.
Carbon XPrize: Utilities that burn coal might have more of an incentive to remove carbon dioxide from smokestacks if they could put thegas toprofitableuse.
That’s the theory behind a $ 20 million competition organized by the XPrize Foundation. Private energy industry is funding the prize, but Wyoming has pledged $ 15 million to build a lab at Basin Electric’s Dry Fork Station, a coal- fired power plant in northeast Wyoming, near Gillette.
Finding newmarkets: Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and otherWyoming officials also have been to Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and China in recent years to promote Wyoming coal— with no newmarkets to showfor their efforts.
One problem is that the WestCoast lacks port facilities to export much ofWyoming’s coal. Regulators are reviewing big coal terminal proposals in Oregon and Washington, and last year the Wyoming Legislature authorized issuing up to $ 1 billion in state bonds to finance construction of those terminals.
Mead said he expects the port facilities to win regulatory approval.
“Listen, coal’s valuable. It’s plentiful,” Mead said. “It is being used and will continue to be used around the planet, regardless of what we do in this country.”
Conveyor belts remove coal from theWyodak Resourcesmine in northeasternWyoming. Coal, blamed for climate change and no longer the fossil fuel that utilities prefer to generate electricity, has few allies these days but still has friends inWyoming. Associated Press file