U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney sponsored legislation Wednesday to advance research into alternative uses for coal, adding fuel to the state’s all-out campaign to buoy the ailing coal industry central to its economy.
The Creating Opportunities and Leveraging Technologies for Coal Carbon, or COAL TeCC, Act would establish a program through the U.S. Department of Energy to accelerate commercial coal product development — like carbon fiber, graphite and carbon foam — to expand the mineral’s use beyond the electricity market.
“New technologies have opened up unlimited applications for coal as a carbon-based product used in automobile frames, airplanes, electronic devices and plastics,” Cheney said in a statement. “The unique composition of coal has the potential to create stronger, lighter and less expensive carbon-based materials, providing coal communities in Wyoming with an important source of jobs and revenue.”
Wyoming leads the nation in coal production, supplying about 40 percent of coal used to power the country. But drooping demand for thermal coal has some state lawmakers and industry insiders eager to find additional applications and markets for the state’s resource.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso introduced a companion bill for COAL TeCC Act in the Senate last month.
“Wyoming has dominated domestic coal production for decades,” Barrasso said in a statement. “We’re always looking for new ways to use this vital resource. Coal is more than just a power source. Carbon from coal can be used in products as diverse as water filters, automobile bodies, bikes and building products. This bill will encourage investment and create new jobs in Wyoming and across the country.”
The bill would amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by creating a new program dedicated to the study and development of coal-derived carbon products for commercial, industrial and medical purposes, according to the draft bill.
If the legislation passes, lawmakers would allocate $5 million a year to the carbon technologies program for the next four fiscal years, beginning in 2020. Using its findings collected through research, the Secretary of Energy, in collaboration with other departments, would then launch a two-year pilot program in “two major coal-production regions.” Congress would dedicate an additional $4 million a year for five fiscal years for the testing part of the initiative.
Coal scientists and engineers have long sought ways to transform coal into carbon products in Wyoming.
Sheridan-based coal technology company Ramaco Carbon is constructing a coal research complex and a manufacturing hub in northern Wyoming. On top of the ambitious proposal, Brook Mining Company, a subsidiary of Ramaco, bought land near Sheridan to resurrect coal mining operations to feed the research facilities. The company aims to transition away from thermal coal generation and find uses for coal beyond electricity production.
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Ramaco Carbon worked with Barrasso and lawmakers representing other coal-dependent districts to draft the bill, according to Randall Atkins, Ramaco’s chairman and CEO.
“We got started on this with a Wyoming-centric point of view, which is how do we create another type of use for coal beyond power generation?” Atkins explained. “Wyoming, as a state, is hurting as are most other thermal coal producers in the drop-off in (coal) demand. We are trying to create another form of large-scale supply and demand for thermal coal.”
Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, oversees the Integrated Test Center in Wyoming’s coal country. Though the center’s charge is to enhance methods for capturing carbon emitted during the processing of coal at power plants, Begger emphasized the importance of federal support to explore the potential of coal.
“There is no question that coal is a very important part of the state’s economy, so anything that can be done to use coal differently or more cleanly — to keep coal as a marketable commodity — is huge,” Begger said. “And that’s what these technologies over the past (43) years that the Department of Energy has been in existence does.”
The department has already graced Wyoming with significant federal support for coal and carbon research. And Gov. Mark Gordon has long touted his support for investing in the study and technological development of coal to protect the state’s robust resource and keep existing coal infrastructure functioning.
“I will say that the Department of Energy has been very helpful,” Gordon said at a news conference this month. “We’ve gotten grants to study the feasibility of carbon capture and sequestration and even different ways of burning coal, and I will say our relationship with the Department of Energy has been very positive, and I do believe there is a way to solve this problem going forward.”
Still, others in Wyoming remain skeptical of investing public funds in coal and carbon ventures.
“The amount of coal that carbon products, if it ever becomes successful, would use is probably not enough to keep one of these Wyoming mines open. It just doesn’t add up to me,” said Bob LeResche, board member of Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils. “... As far as the private sector wants to invest private money in that (research), that’s a wonderful thing. I think it’s a total misuse of public funds.”
Cheney’s legislation will face an uphill battle in a Democrat-controlled House largely set on divesting the country from fossil fuels like coal. But Wyoming lawmakers have dug in their heels to defend coal.
“Investing in carbon-based technology and research strengthens the reality of coal as one of America’s most versatile and valuable natural resources,” Cheney added.
Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports