CASPER — America’s No. 2 coal-producer, Arch Coal Inc., announced last week that it paid $25 million to acquire 38 percent interest in Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview, LLC, one of dozens of companies scrambling to boost coal export capacity from the West Coast to customers in Asia.

“With our superior operating position in the Powder River Basin and Western Bituminous Region, we have the capability to service growing coal demand in Asia, the world’s largest and fastest-growing coal market,” Arch Coal chairman and CEO Steven F. Leer said in a prepared statement.

Arch has several other projects in the works to increase the company’s stake in the “seaborne thermal market,” according to Leer. It’s all part of a huge rush among U.S. coal producers to get a toehold in the Asian market.

With the Millennium Bulk deal, Arch joins Peabody Energy Corp. — both major producers of Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming — in banking on the Asian coal market for growth. Wyoming coal producers Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and railroads Union Pacific and BNSF Railway have all expressed interest in boosting coal exports from the West Coast.

In a prepared statement in October, Peabody chairman and CEO Gregory H. Boyce said, “Peabody believes that the global coal industry is in the early stages of a long term supercycle, led by China and India.”

The potential new market presumably translates to job-security for more than 6,000 Wyoming coal miners who dig and ship more than 420 million tons annually from the Powder River Basin. But this soaring optimism about sending more U.S. coal overseas is in proportion to growing pessimism about coal’s future in the United States.

On the consumption side, coal is losing its share of the U.S. utility market to natural gas. And on the production side, industry leaders and their biggest political supporters say mining is under attack.

“This (Obama) administration is flat-out against coal and they’re not going to let another permit go through. In 10 years, the coal industry will be done,” U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R–Wyo., told WyoFile while visiting with Wyoming lawmakers in Cheyenne on Friday.

ENERGY POLICY VOID

In 2010, U.S. utilities continued to shift away from coal to natural gas for baseload electric generation, based on increasing gas supplies within the U.S. and a need to meet more stringent emission standards.

The percentage of coal-fueled electric generation in the U.S. has slipped from 48.2 percent in 2008 to 44.6 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal industry leaders note that the decrease in the actual volume of coal consumed in the U.S. is less severe and, in fact, U.S. coal consumption is forecast to remain flat or slightly increase in the near-term.

Yet there’s very little progress in the build-out of the coal-gasification and carbon sequestration technologies that are seen as essential to preserving Wyoming’s coal industry in a future energy regime that forces nations to curb greenhouse gas emissions and become more energy independent.

While it focuses on serving the burgeoning Asian market, the coal industry remains dead-set against implementing a cap-and-trade policy or any other market-driven carbon emission reduction policy in the U.S.

“It’s evidence there’s lack of confidence that the coal market for power generation in the U.S. will be vibrant for the future,” said Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources.

Northam said he believes the U.S. has plenty of coal on hand to increase exports — which will help correct a trade imbalance — while still serving the nation’s current electric utility needs. But the volume of additional coal going overseas isn’t much.

Total U.S. coal exports in 2009 were only 26.2 million tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By October 2010, U.S. coal exports were 39.7 million tons. At best, U.S. coal exports might increase in increments of 10-20 million tons per year in the near-term, according to industry analysis, compared to current total domestic demand at slightly more than 1 billion tons annually.

Utilities, financiers and even coal industry leaders say carbon capture and sequestration technologies are the only way to secure a future market for coal in the U.S.

“We want to see the research going forward with the technology and start getting some of these projects to capture and seuqester CO2 going forward,” said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. “Hopefully, in the near term as we start to capture carbon we can start to sell it for enhanced oil recovery. Then you have to start looking at sequestration.”

Loomis said the coal industry doesn’t want to see any carbon emission reduction mandates until the technologies are in place to achieve them — a situation that Northam said is the chicken-and-egg dilemma.

Northam insists that merely pouring money into efforts to commercialize advanced coal technologies isn’t likely to convince utilities and financiers to invest in them. A U.S. energy policy that clearly defines emissions goals and how to pay for them is needed first, he said. Until such a policy is in place, more U.S. coal will go overseas and U.S. utilities will continue to shift to other energy sources.

“That (regulatory) uncertainty is going to kill them,” Northam said. “We need answers.”

NO EXPECTATIONS

Northam said the coal industry doesn’t shoulder all the blame, however. He said the federal government needs to establish a timetable for greenhouse gas emission reductions and figure out who pays for it. And the federal government, not industry or the states, should accept the long-term environmental and human health hazard liability for underground carbon storage, said Northam.

He said federal officials have resisted accepting liability, and they haven’t crafted rules guiding carbon capture and sequestration. These are perhaps much larger obstacles to overcome than any engineering question, according to Northam.

“The federal government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in these technologies that have no clear end-point application,” said Northam.

But there’s little expectation that the new GOP-led U.S. House of Representatives will offer an energy bill in the next two years.

Wyoming’s three Congressional delegates are among those who equate any additional regulatory expense as a “tax.” Like many European nations, Congress could impose a straight tax on carbon and spend those revenues on energy efficiency, renewable energy and cleaner coal plants. Some European-style energy “tariffs” have already emerged in California’s energy policy.

What the U.S. is left with now, however, is the Environmental Protection Agency‘s still-developing plan to phase in greenhouse gas emission reductions under the Clean Air Act, forcing utilities to spend money on upgrades that reduce emissions, and passing those costs on to ratepayers.

While GOP leaders insist that those regulations amount to a tax, utilities note that it simply results in higher utility rates for customers. While some of that money goes to renewable energy components — solar panels and some wind turbine components, for example — built in foreign nations, all of it necessarily goes toward updating America’s energy infrastructure, requiring the creation of American jobs.

Whether those jobs outnumber jobs lost in fossil fuels is a huge point of contention in the United States.

Sen. Enzi, along with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., also oppose the current plan by EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. GOP leaders have vowed to block EPA from implementing its plan. But even if they’re successful, utilities say it would only add to the uncertainty that currently prevents them from investing in new coal facilities.

“We’re at a point in this country where some tough decisions are going to have to be made fairly soon,” said Jeff Hymas, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, a regulated utility in six western states, including Wyoming.

For several years, Rocky Mountain Power has said the lack of a U.S. energy policy and clear emissions reduction goals has forced the utility to take coal off the table when it comes to planning to meet future electrical demand. Many other utilities have done the same while expediting plans to shutter older and smaller coal units that don’t justify expensive emissions control upgrades.

“We have to plan out years in advance to meet our customers’ needs. If you don’t have a clear picture of what the costs of certain resources will be, it’s very problematic to compare them against other options,” said Hymas.

“It’s such an obvious gap; that lack of a U.S. energy policy. And everbody agrees. But when it comes time to say what that set of policies should be, everyone goes on the attack,” said David Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.

Wendt was the Democratic challenger in the 2010 U.S. House race against incumbent Republican Cynthia Lummis. He touted a cap-and-trade system as a means to preserve Wyoming’s coal market.

Rather than cut coal out of the picture, Wendt argued that having a phased-in set of emissions reduction goals and a market-based system to pay for it would unleash billions of dollars still waiting on the sidelines to commercialize carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

Yet many in the coal industry insist that no energy policy is better than the cap-and-trade program offered under the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the House in 2009 but failed in the Senate.

“We don’t want to see cap-and-trade or a tax until we get some technologies out there that work. That’s where we think the effort should be made, is to develop those technologies,” said Loomis.

Some of coal’s biggest opponents say this stance only serves to waste billions of federal dollars spent on carbon capture and sequestration programs.

“We’d prefer capital is put in proven and clean technologies that are available today opposed to putting money into a project that has not been successful,” said David Graham-Caso, associate secretary of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club estimates some 148 planned coal units have been canceled in the U.S. in recent years.

UTILITIES MOVE ON WITHOUT COAL

Many in the coal industry point the finger at electric utilities and say they — along with the federal government — should be the biggest investors in commercializing cleaner coal technologies.

“The producers really aren’t the ones to talk to. It’s your utilities, to see what they think they can pass on to the ratepayer. That’s where it’s going to happen,” said Steve Rennell, president of Alpha Coal West, which operates the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte coal mines in Campbell County.

That’s difficult for regulated utilities, which are required to justify all new costs, according to Hymas. State utility commissions require that investments by regulated utilities are “used and useful” for customers before those costs can be included in electricity prices, said Hymas.

And few unregulated merchant power producers have the financial wherewithal to blaze a trail to an advanced coal power future.

“As a regulated utility, Rocky Mountain Power is very limited in its ability to invest in research and development for carbon capture and sequestration or other unproven technologies,” said Hymas. “We have to avoid speculative projects that may or may not provide benefit sometime in the future, because of the potential cost impact on customers.”

Rather than advancing coal technologies, Rocky Mountain Power, its sister utility, MidAmerican Energy Co., and parent company, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., are meeting cleaner energy goals by installing wind energy while they explore biomass and nuclear power and invest in battery storage technology.

“Looking at the big picture, these types of investments, together with additional public and private investments in carbon capture and sequestration technologies, are what is needed in order to make major advances in reducing carbon emissions,” said Hymas.

Rennell said coal companies are simply fighting to make sure that an energy and climate bill doesn’t exclude coal. The industry wants assurances that coal will be a big part of a more diverse energy portfolio. He agreed that until such a policy is in place, U.S. utilities aren’t likely to build new coal facilities.

“There’s absolutely no incentive. I wouldn’t go out and spend money on a coal-fired power plant right now. Not without some certainty that I’m going to be able to turn it on,” said Rennell.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, has echoed the coal industry’s preferred energy strategy of bolstering cleaner technologies, but only outside the framework of targeted greenhouse gas emission reductions.

In his State of the State address last week, Mead declared that Wyoming is on the “cutting edge” of these technologies, citing the University of Wyoming and G.E. Energy collaboration on a coal-gasification research center in Cheyenne, and DKRW Advanced Fuels’ coal-to-gasoline plant under construction in Carbon County.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy has helped fund two separate pilot projects in Wyoming to determine the potential commercialization of carbon sequestration.

Mead prefaced his remarks by saying, “I am skeptical about man-made global warming without more and better science; but I am not skeptical about growing demand by our energy customers for cleaner coal and gas, and I am not skeptical about our oil industry’s need for carbon injection technology for enhanced oil recovery.”

Barrasso and Lummis did not respond to requests for comment.

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. I am a chemical engineering professor at the University of Wyoming, and I study clean coal technology. There are no technical barriers to building clean coal plants. Using off-the-shelf technology, we can build a FutureGen-style plant that will generate electricity and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 %. The problem is that electricity from this plant would be much more expensive than a conventional pulverised coal plant. Without a stiff carbon tax, the clean coal approach is not economically competitive. I doubt that there will be such a tax in the near future. Many people want clean energy, but few of us are willing to pay for it.

    The goal of clean coal research should be to lower the cost of the technology. It’s impossible to predict what future research will find, but I doubt that we will be able to lower clean coal costs to the point where electricity can be produced at the same cost as a conventional pulverised coal plant.

    The economics are much more promising for coal-to-liquids plants, such as the DKRW plant near Medicine Bow. At current crude oil prices, about $90/bbl, these plants are marginally economic. If oil prices continue to rise, we will hear much more about coal-to-liquids plants.

  2. Burning coal for electrical power is, by far, the most polluting method out there, and expensive to clean-up, if not impossible. The coal and power industries know this. No wonder they oppose any kind of cap-and-trade legislation. They would rather pollute our world, and build cheap dirty power plants, than find themselves having to compete with solar or wind energy on the basis of the real costs to humanity and the environment, because they know their dirty coal will never win that competition. With the smallest showing that the U.S. government might try to level the playing field, based on true costs, the coal companies turn to Asia for new markets – and new victims for their asthma inducing, planet killing pollution and waste dumps. I know that burning coal must remain a part of our total energy production, until something better can replace it, but it’s production should be gradually decreased, not increased. Mike Enzi’s statement saying the coal industry will be gone in ten years is clearly nothing more than a silly, fear-mongering exaggeration. With any luck, hopefully, the industry will slowly decline as better forms of energy come on line. But with governors and congressional representatives like we have in Wyoming, who are willing to sacrifice human health and the long term environment for a short-term and short-sighted cost advantage in the price of coal powered electricity – just to increase employment – and thus be favored by the electorate – well, I suppose the coal industry will continue to grow. Which, of coarse, will please Mr. Mead, and Mr.Enzi, and the entire Wyoming delegation. If pollution from burning coal caused an IMMEDIATE and widespread disaster, like the earthquake in Haiti, then maybe the people of Wyoming would wake up and support candidates for public office who have a longer-term view, and care about the health of our population and the planet. (From a long time Wyoming Resident)

  3. Yes, it may well be the end of coal in ten years. Climate change is happening so fast that it could be sooner than ten years. If people would pay attention to what is happening in Australia, South America, and on both of our coasts, they would see a trend that the scientists predicted. Tighten up your cinches, we are in for a wild ride.