GILLETTE — The need for Wyoming and Campbell County to diversify its economy and move away from being dependent on the highs and lows of the fickle energy roller coaster has been talked about for decades.
Now it’s long past time just to discuss diversification; it’s time to do something about it, Gov. Matt Mead said Tuesday morning at Cam-plex in Gillette to open the second and final day of a conference called “Strengthening Economies in Wyoming: A Forum for Coal-Reliant Communities.”
A fourth-generation Wyomingite, Mead is a rancher and a former Campbell County prosecutor who followed his grandfather into politics. Clifford Hansen was Wyoming governor in the 1960s and a U.S. senator in the 1970s. Mead said diversification was something communities were concerned about then as well.
Fast-forward a half century and the Cowboy State is at a crossroads, he said. The main reason not much has been done to move the state’s economy away from dependence on fossil fuel production, particularly coal, is you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
“How do communities become reliant on coal?” he asked. “Because people need energy. The world is reliant on using coal. … We know what it means in Campbell County and we know what it means to Wyoming.”
As the rest of the country and world push to move beyond thermal coal as the main source of affordable power generation, the recent downturn that saw oil, natural gas and coal all bust at the same time was a wake-up call, Mead said.
“Those were dark days in Campbell County,” he said. “They were dark days in Wyoming … and it was devastating. It’s personal for us here.”
At the same time, enhancing coal is important even as the state tries to move on from being as reliant on the mineral, he said. That’s because while production has taken a dive in the United States, the rest of the world wants Wyoming coal. During a recent trip to Taiwan, Mead said Taiwan is home to the world’s fourth-largest coal-fired power plant and would burn Powder River Basin coal in it if they could get it.
That’s why while innovation and research have grabbed headlines of late, one of the state’s top priorities is to bust the blockade Washington state has put up against building a coal port and shipping coal to its ports.
One reason we’re coal-reliant is that Wyoming is basically “a dig-and-ship state,” Mead said.
That may have been fine in the past, but not anymore, which is why efforts are snowballing to capture waste carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and to extract carbon from coal to make other products.
“If any state should be able to diversify its economy, it’s Wyoming,” he said about the potential for growing the carbon production industry.
The problem is that “we’ve tried this before,” Mead said, adding that as governors change and administrations come and go, “It’s only (lasted) four years at a time.”
Diversifying the economy in Campbell County and the rest of the state doesn’t mean moving away from coal, said Michael Pishko, dean of the University of Wyoming College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
It’s actually the opposite. He said finding ways to make Wyoming’s vast coal resource more valuable is the focus of a laundry list of research projects ongoing at the university.
As the world continues to embrace the concept of climate change and the role of CO2 in contributing to it, “there’s going to be increasing pressure on what to do with CO2 (emissions),” Pishko said.
That’s why efforts like the research that’s going to happen at the Integrated Test Center, which will use flue gas from the Dry Fork Station power plant north of Gillette to show various methods of capturing and repurposing that waste product, are important.
In the end, however, the research won’t have much of a practical impact if it can’t be translated into valuable products that private industry wants to produce, he said.
“A lot of this depends on the economics, so that’s what they’re developing,” he said about the UW research efforts. “It isn’t just a scientific curiosity.”
Making those carbon products more valuable and worth investing in is the key to turning the corner on decades of diversification talk, said Jim Ford, a Gillette resident and vice president of operations for Atlas Carbon.
Atlas Carbon uses Powder River Basin coal to produce activated carbon, which can be used in filtration systems. Atlas can take 4 tons of $12 coal and turn it into 1 ton of activated carbon worth $1,200.
“That’s a theme I’m passionate about,” he said. “How do you get out of the textbook, out of the lab, out of the classroom and get things done?”
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the downturn, it’s that “if we can’t drive higher production volumes, we need to drive value increases,” Ford said.
Ford said he refers to coal as “crude coal,” because like crude oil, coal has the same potential for being refined into myriad more valuable products. On a basic chemical level, he said there’s not much difference between coal and oil. It’s the same for CO2 emissions.
“If our trash can be somebody else’s treasure, there are that many more opportunities,” he said.
That’s the idea behind the ongoing development of the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center in Campbell County, said Phil Christopherson, executive director for Energy Capital Economic Development.
“Converting coal into products has been done for a long time,” he said. “But once oil came around, coal got put not on the back burner, but off the burner altogether. … As soon as you can prove the processes (for coal) are commercially viable, (private industry) will move forward.”
As for the Wyoming’s economic future, Mead said the state is, and should continue to be, a leader in promoting carbon research and innovation.
“I will not accept we don’t control our own fate,” he said. “I don’t accept that the whole future of Wyoming is based upon what coal prices are or what oil prices are.
“If we’re the Cowboy State, if we’re this independent state, if we’re the Equality State, certainly we should have the courage to say we’re going to make a better future for ourselves and our young people.”