Wyoming officials grapple with coal export ambitions while spending millions on clean coal research

In light of the Powder River Basin coal industry’s recent focus to ship more coal to China and other burgeoning Asian economies, industry officials are taking heat for not doing more to support the deployment of so-called advanced coal technologies here at home.

Heat Exchange: Efforts to increase Wyoming coal exports turns the heat up on legal challenges to impacts both local and global

Wyoming is spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to land one or more “clean coal” facilities in the Cowboy State, an investment that Wyoming officials hope will spark the commercialization of cleaner coal technologies throughout the U.S. — a step necessary to keep Powder River Basin coal viable under increasingly tougher emission standards. But there’s frustration among some officials over the fact that Wyoming’s coal technology research has not yet resulted in a commercial project in the state.

Now, members of Wyoming’s Clean Coal Task Force — which grants millions in coal research dollars — say the coal industry is coming under scrutiny for spending huge amounts of money and political effort to export Wyoming coal to China rather than concentrate its efforts on backing cleaner coal technologies and policies here in the U.S.

The subject came up at a recent meeting of the Clean Coal Task Force, which includes several executives from the fossil fuel industries. Task force member Mark Northam, director of the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming, said that the coal industry is fighting a series of lawsuits over proposed rail and seaport expansions in the Pacific Northwest, tying up time and money.

“It’s NGOs (non-government organizations) filling our courts with cases because of dust. It’s (lawmakers) considering federal tax revenue for coal that’s going to be shipped overseas, and they all factor into the economics,” Northam said. “You have to ask; do you spend the money on ports or do you spend the money on clean facilities?”

In a follow up interview, Northam said he doesn’t question the validity of each environmental challenge to projects related to coal exports. He said given the volume of opposition to coal exports in the Pacific Northwest, it may make economic sense for the industry to instead focus on technologies and policies to keep coal viable in the U.S.

During the discussion at last week’s meeting, task force member Ron Harper, former CEO and general manager of Basin Electric Power Cooperative, said the coal industry has done everything it can to maintain its U.S. utility market, and to “ship coal overseas because it’s said that we’re not going to burn coal in the U.S., and I have a problem with that.”

In discussing the group’s next round of coal research requests for proposal (RFPs), task force member Paul Lang, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Arch Coal Inc., asked whether the group should issue an RFP to research the legal, economic and regulatory issues that might be preventing cleaner coal technologies from reaching commercialization.

“I don’t understand why some of these things never move forward,” said Lang.

At least one research study yet to be awarded includes analyzing economic considerations of cleaner coal technologies. Task force members said they would consider a separate, more narrowly-scoped RFP and consult with university staff in drafting the study proposal.

The coal industry has argued that bringing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies — which allow for the capture of CO2 and other pollutants from coal — to commercialization would be too costly for ratepayers. Environmental groups contend the coal lobby is to blame for blocking Congress from passing an energy policy that would set greenhouse gas limits and help drive innovation to lower the cost of CCS technologies.

Coal’s share of the U.S. utility market has slipped in recent years, from 51 percent to less than 45 percent, due mostly to the growing availability of cheaper U.S. natural gas as well as a series of rules aimed at reducing toxins and greenhouse gases from the burning of coal.

Last year, Wyoming’s cleaner coal efforts hit a snag when GE Energy announced it had indefinitely shelved the High Plains Gasification-Advanced Technology research center — a $100 million partnership with the University of Wyoming to advance the use of Powder River Basin coals in gasification processes.

“The original project investment plan anticipated more progress toward certainty in the future of federal energy policy,” GE stated in a 2011 joint press release with the University of Wyoming.

Wyoming has spent approximately $25.5 million on “clean coal” research since the inception of its Clean Coal Task Force in 2007, and the group is preparing to issue RFPs for another $19.5 million in various advanced coal and “advanced conversion” (broadening the scope beyond coal) technologies research. So far, all of the state’s appropriations toward cleaner coal research have come from Wyoming’s share of the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund.

Shannon Anderson, of the landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council, questioned whether coal research is an appropriate use of Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund money.

“It’s important to remember that the funding for these projects isn’t coming from a magical coal industry piggy bank — it’s coming from Abandoned Mine Lands fees which are public funds with the purpose of addressing impacts of mineral development,” Anderson told WyoFile. “It’s time for the state to re-evaluate how we spend these funds and prioritize projects those that are most likely to have immediate results in addressing energy impacts.”

The state’s current $25.5 million investment has attracted at least $25 million in matching funds from industry partners, according to University of Wyoming officials. The next round of RFPs — $19.5 million — requires at least $19 million in matching funds.

School of Energy Resources staff, which manages research projects funded by the Clean Coal Task Force, say the results of years of research is just now starting to come in, and officials should have a better idea of which cleaner coal applications might be put to use in Wyoming and with Wyoming coal.

Banner photo courtesy of llnlphotos.

Contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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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 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. … except there is NO SUCH THING as ” Clean Coal ” if you burn the stuff at all . That is a leading oxymoron of our time. You can bend the laws of thermodynamics and physical chemistry a little, but you cannot break them.