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The Dry Fork Station is home to the Integrated Test Center, which will house researchers looking for ways to capture and monetize carbon emissions from the coal-burning process. Sen. John Barrasso recently criticized the Department of Energy for proposing to cut 80 percent of the department's budget for carbon capture research and development.

Sen. John Barrasso criticized an 80 percent cut to coal research and development proposed by the Trump Administration in a Tuesday hearing with Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

The Wyoming senator noted that cleaner ways to burn coal, as well as the development of new uses for the fossil fuel, are critical for the environment and the nation’s energy sector.

“I think now is not the time to cut this funding,” Barrasso said.

Wyoming is the single largest producer of the nation’s thermal coal, mining about 40 percent of the supply in a given year. Two Wyoming mines, North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder, produce nearly one-quarter of the country’s coal.

But the industry has been rocked in recent years, hit by a perfect storm of debt and declining demand. Cheap natural gas is coal’s biggest challenge, as utilities switch to gas-burning power plants. Growing renewable sources of power like wind and solar have also dealt the coal industry a blow. During the downturn of 2015 and 2016, Wyoming’s coal sector lost nearly 1,000 workers.

Though coal research does not directly solve the problem of declining coal demand, many see it as a way to protect the industry by creating new markets for coal outside of the power sector. Carbon capture could also a shield the industry from future regulations that seek to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-power. Fossil fuel emissions are the leading cause of human-caused climate change, scientists say.

Barrasso highlighted recent legislation that extended and expanded a tax credit for capturing carbon dioxide from coal-burning plants. That credit is meant to foster a growing industry in carbon capture and use.

“We should, I believe, build upon the success of this legislation by maintaining a robust research and development program to support the expanded development of this technology,” Barrasso said.

The senator asked for a commitment from the secretary that the cuts would not harm the country’s investment in coal research and technology.

Perry said that the 80 percent budget cut would not mean a reduction in the amount of research and development supported by the Department of Energy.

“Our commitment to carbon capture, utilization, storage is very strong,” the secretary said.

Coal research has long been a priority in Wyoming given the state’s reliance on coal revenue, as well as local dependence on the coal sector in places like Gillette.

The state set aside $15 million in a cost share with private businesses for the Wyoming Integrated Test Center in 2014. The center, completed last year in Campbell County, offers research bays for tenants to explore different uses for carbon dioxide. The research bays are fed by the emissions from Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s coal-fired plant outside Gillette.

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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