Curt Pearson witnessed the Dry Fork Station being built from the ground up, which is perhaps why it’s a point of personal pride. The powder blue and grey coal-fired power plant is just visible from the city of Gillette, the epicenter of the nation’s coal sector. It’s one of the newest coal-fired plants in the country and is expected to burn coal for electricity for another 40 plus years.
It’s plants like this, which cost Basin Electric Power Cooperative $1.3 billion to build, that are most invested in carbon capture technology, Pearson said. Because as clean as Dry Fork burns compared to coal plants from decades past, it still pumps a mix of gasses into the atmosphere with about a 15 percent concentration of carbon dioxide, the gas linked to climate change that has been the focus of state, federal and international attempts at reducing greenhouse gasses.
In a few months, Wyoming’s $15 million defense to the threat of federal regulations on coal-fired power will open to researchers studying ways to capture carbon dioxide and use it for other purposes. The Wyoming Integrated Test Center, a facility attached to Dry Fork and built with public and private funding, was a response to increasing pressure on coal during the Obama years to address carbon dioxide emissions, and it will host its first tenants, competitors in the Carbon XPRIZE competition, in early 2018.
Of course, the coal market of today is significantly different than the one that existed three years ago. And the ITC will exist in a regulatory environment about as different from the Obama years as it could be.
So is it still relevant? Proponents say absolutely.
Virtually every assumption about coal’s future has been challenged in recent years. The Clean Power Plan that shook Wyoming with its threat of a mandatory 44 percent reduction in the state’s carbon dioxide emissions was being rolled back by the Trump Administration as of Tuesday.
But coal is still under pressure in an electricity market that it once dominated, as cheap gas generation and renewables steal away its market share and a spate of coal plant closures diminished Wyoming’s customer base. And though the CPP is toast, the issue of climate change is not.
Some say the Integrated Test Center, a research facility attached to the Dry Fork power plant funded with public and private dollars, is a wasted investment because the market is shouldering coal out. But others, like Jason Begger, the director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, argue that it will help the coal industry, both as an answer to environmental challenges and as a benefit to Wyoming’s troubled economy – a chance to grow the carbon research sector.
“Now we’re looking at this as really an opportunity,” Begger said of the ITC. “We don’t necessarily have a federal program that’s going to force us to do these things, and yet, it’s the right thing to do.”
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It’s odd to see Wyoming promoting carbon capture the week the Trump Administration declared that “the war on coal is over.” That war was largely one of regulations, regulations against emissions.
A host of federal policies that challenge the fossil fuel industries have been targeted by President Donald Trump’s Administration for review, and if possible, repeal. It’s a position the administration has acted on, making carbon capture an odd choice if those in power don’t see coal as a threat to the environment.
“There’s no market for carbon capture and sequestration if there’s no policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Trevor Houser, a partner at the Rhodium Group, an international policy research firm. “If you are a coal fired power plant and there is no restriction on how much carbon you emit, you’re not going to voluntarily spend a billion dollars on a carbon capture unit. “
That said, emissions regulations are likely in the long term. Carbon capture will be an important part of coal’s future, he said.
It’s just not going to save the day for Wyoming coal production, he said. Houser was one of the authors of a report that found 49 percent of the recent coal downturn was due to low natural gas prices. Though carbon capture is important if you’re concerned about climate change, it doesn’t do much for the declining demand problem, he said.
“There’s no world in which even very aggressive deployment of carbon capture and sequestration leads to an increase in coal production,” Houser said. “But it might slow the pace of decline.”
Some in Wyoming have criticized continued investment in carbon capture, seeing it as a prop to an ailing industry.
Bob LeResche, a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said he doesn’t believe it’s the public’s job to fund any research.
“If I believed that there was some way to do it economically, I’d be all for it. I just don’t,” he said. “The price of renewables is coming down. The price of gas is low. You can’t just fight the market with technology, especially funded by the public. If this is such a good deal, these giant coal companies should be doing it themselves.”
Wyoming is operating on the assumption that cleaner coal will be an imperative for the market’s continued viability. It’s a position the state has held for years: bypass the debate on climate change and address the reality of its pressure on the coal market.
That take is more and more in vogue in Washington as the hot debate over whether humans cause climate change is fizzling out, some say.
Conservatives in politics and some leaders in the coal sector are increasingly working across the aisle, looking for policies and technologies that use coal while addressing environmental concerns, said Rich Powell, executive director of the ClearPath Foundation, a think tank promoting conservative solutions to climate change.
“I’m not sure every one of those people believe humans are linked to climate change,” Powell said of the bi-partisan groups in D.C., “But they want to get beyond the whole question about the problem and get to solutions.”
Wyoming is on the right track, he said. ClearPath is promoting the use of carbon dioxide capture at power plants in oil field stimulation, currently the only viable market developed to use emissions for gain.
“I think it’s visionary for Wyoming to be so forward thinking about preserving its resources,” he said.
Though carbon capture began to fall out of favor in Washington towards the end of the Obama Administration, there’s a renewed interest nationally, with a particular focus on extending and increasing federal subsidies for the sector, he said.
For the Integrated Test Center, doing away with the Clean Power Plan hasn’t reduced their goals, it’s given the state time to address the problem of fossil fuel emissions and take advantage of an economic opportunity for Powder River Basin coal, said Begger.
There is a global picture of coal that Begger and Wyoming’s governor Matt Mead, see as reason to hope for coal. Modern economies in countries like Japan are looking at carbon technology and building out a coal fleet. Developing countries like India and Africa are going to use whatever fuel they can to bring power to their communities regardless of larger challenges like climate change, Begger said.
Getting Wyoming coal across the ocean has been a dream for years, and Begger said that potential has been growing. The demand is there, and if new coal fired plants are specialized for PRB coal, that’s a long-term relationship to help the state’s coal sector.
The decline in coal demand is a real challenge for Wyoming, but it’s mainly one of economics, not regulations now, he said. And carbon capture is all about researching and investing in technologies that are meant to be, at some point, commercial options.
For some invested in the Integrated Test Center there is still an existing coal-fired electricity sector that can benefit from this research. Coal provides about 30 percent of the nation’s power, a hefty contribution that won’t immediately disappear, experts say.
The work at the ITC could “revolutionize the use of coal,” said Pearson, the proud spokesman of Basin Electric. “This is one of many ways we are trying to look to the future.”