Delegates from Wyoming and China have formed alliances in recent years on matters of coal. This photo was taken at the Yanchang Coal and Petroleum Chemical Industry Park in Shaanxi Province in 2014, which neighbors Shanxi Province in the inner coal-producing region of China. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

(Guest column) — As a member of the University of Wyoming delegation that traveled last month to China’s Shanxi Province for in international conference on clean-coal and coal-conversion technologies, I emerged more convinced than ever of the potential benefits of Wyoming-Shanxi collaboration.

Mark Northam, director of University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources
Mark Northam, director of University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources

Simply stated, as major coal-producing regions in our respective countries, Wyoming and Shanxi are in a very similar position.

Coal production is a major driver for both of our economies. In addition to the jobs and economic activity it creates, it produces significant revenue to sustain government services for our citizens. And because both Wyoming and Shanxi produce more coal than they consume, we’re both at the mercy of forces beyond our control when it comes to the ways coal is used — and the prices it brings.

Both Wyoming and Shanxi are seeing declining demand for coal as utilities seek reductions in carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, in response to government regulation and market forces. That is a trend that doesn’t appear likely to reverse itself in the foreseeable future. As a result, we both have a deep interest in finding a better future for our vast coal reserves.

Our approach is two-pronged. First, we’re both looking for ways to make traditional uses of coal cleaner and more efficient, through carbon capture and storage and other technologies. Second, we’re exploring ways to create new markets for coal through carbon engineering — creating value-added products, such as carbon fiber, with a minimal or even negative carbon footprint.

Making coal a cleaner fuel source, and a valuable resource in new markets, would both preserve our traditional coal industries and create a new industrial base for both Wyoming and Shanxi. Working collaboratively, we have the potential to accomplish more than we would individually.

Our discussions have shown that we have complementary strengths. Because of the structure of China’s government-owned coal, electrical utility and chemical companies, Shanxi has a proven ability to fund and build demonstration plants for clean-coal and coal-conversion technologies. Meanwhile, our research on carbon engineering technologies has their attention, along with our work on carbon capture and storage and use of carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. There is potential for foreign investment in Wyoming projects, which would be a tremendous development for the state.

In fact, Shanxi leaders invited UW scientists to apply for research funding under the province’s domestic and international programs. To date, UW is the only non-Chinese entity invited to apply under the domestic program. We intend to pursue those opportunities, along with student and faculty exchanges and other collaborations.

Our trip to Shanxi Province greatly benefited from the presence of state Sens. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) and Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), who shared state perspectives and provided Wyoming’s official and formal representation. Representatives of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs also were present and conducted a parallel set of discussions that will allow for broad-ranging collaboration inside and outside the state.

Overall, the visits have set the stage for partnerships that will benefit Wyoming and Shanxi, as well as the entire nations of the United States and China — and the world, for that matter.

Much is at stake for Wyoming and Shanxi Province. Notwithstanding our differences in language and population, our interests are aligned when it comes to coal. In an extremely challenging environment, pursuing our shared ambitions in a collaborative manner offers the best opportunity for success. That’s what we intend to do.

— Mark Northam is the director the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources.

— Guest columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at

For more on this topic, read these WyoFile stories:
Wyoming, China dream of a coal-chemical bridge to future energy, August 2014
Reasons differ, but Wyoming and China agree on cutting CO2 from coal, August 2014

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  1. IF the so called clean coal, bears fruit, so to speak, then why would China import coal from WYOMING?
    Also, a quick glance at a world map shows the location of Australia, relative to China, and other Asian countries.( Australia has massive coal deposits, and is a lot closer to Asia)
    China must be very good at technology transfer, but who gets the benefit, on TECH transfer?
    Also, oil and gas are not static in technology, fracking of tight sands did not exist in the early 1980’s, but some real smart people in Texas, opened up new drilling methods that changed the face of hydrocarbon developments , that America sees today.(2015). Also, LNG,( Liquified Natural Gas) is in the early stages of development in the USA, but it is soon coming, big LNG tankers from ports in America will be sending exports of LNG all over the world. What happened to PEAK OIL, the theory that the world was running out of oil, and oil prices would hit $ 400/ barrel. Seems technology advances threw a wrench in some gloom and doom theories. But, in the economic flux, some companies will go bellyup, who make imprudent business decisions.

    Jim Hagood