PacifiCorp’s Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant just outside Glenrock is slated for retirement but proponents of carbon capture technology suggest a conversion could extend the life of one unit. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

You know that American energy is going through a topsy-turvy time when the Washington Post decides to quote the Sierra Club on economics — while looking to Rocky Mountain Power for expertise about environmentalism. This was in a recent new report about carbon capture in Wyoming, and the Post didn’t do much to hide its disdain for Wyoming’s Republican officials, the Trump administration and the coal industry — a combination holding back the coal-free future that (as a recent anti-Wyoming swipe in the New York Times added) in the Post’s thinking, all right-thinking people should want.

For a more local example of the world turned upside down, you might take a look at Kerry Drake’s recent column in WyoFile: an attack on carbon capture in Wyoming and the perfidious politicians who are interested in the new technology. Strange times we live in, when a veteran Wyoming journalist — trained to be skeptical about the self-serving claims of big out-of-state businesses that threaten the welfare of ordinary Wyomingites — finds himself uncritically embracing the assertions of Rocky Mountain Power, a division of an enormous interstate power company, PacifiCorp, which is itself a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. These are not people who have the welfare of Wyoming as their primary concern.

These power companies aren’t just wrong about carbon capture because they are owned by out-of-state interests, of course. They are, however, wrong: Carbon capture offers unique opportunities for Wyoming. 

But a proposition isn’t proved false just because it was said by someone with ulterior motives — a fact about logic one wishes would be remembered by those who sneer that the Department of Energy’s recent report on carbon capture comes from the Trump administration, as though that alone makes it untrue. We get no closer to reality by saying “If Trump is for something, I must be against it” than we get by saying “If the New York Times hates something, I should love it.”

So, let’s take a step back and look at that Department of Energy study of carbon-capture technology retrofitted to Wyoming’s coal-burning power plants. The study concluded that carbon capture would reduce emissions by 37% more than PacifiCorp’s 2019 plan to close Wyoming’s coal plants and replace them with wind and solar. The cost of this plan? Carbon capture comes in at $24 per ton less than PacifiCorp’s plan, according to the study. The electrical costs charged to Wyoming’s ordinary ratepayers would be lower, while the state and local communities would see tax revenues and royalty payments much higher than PacifiCorp promises. 

There’s another serious gain from carbon capture, for those who care about Wyoming. The employment benefits would be at least five times higher, according to the study, with carbon capture keeping intact what PacifiCorp would destroy: the Wyoming communities — their virtues, cultures and livelihoods — that have powered America for decades.

A common complaint is that the study is pointless: The “natural laws of free-market economics” (to quote Drake) have already decided against coal. It’s a little peculiar to hear this line from those who, in other contexts, would likely denounce free-market capitalism, but — being logical again — the self-contradictions of those who make a claim are not what make a claim false. What makes the “market has rejected coal” notion false is that the market had nothing to do with it. 

Remember Solyndra, the solar-panel manufacturer that went bankrupt in 2011 despite receiving $535 million in loan guarantees from the federal government? Just a few weeks ago, Crescent Dunes Solar, a defunct Nevada solar-power installation, gave up on ever returning $537 million of its own loan guarantees. 

The market did not choose solar and wind. They were chosen by huge government interventions that wildly distort the market with tax credits, cheap loans and dispatch priority on the grid — making energy production a playground for the rich to profit at the expense of ordinary ratepayers. 

“I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire’s tax rate,” Warren Buffet told a Nebraska audience in 2014. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”

That doesn’t mean that wind farms cost what they did in 2014. And it doesn’t mean that subsidizing renewable energy is wrong. The person who isn’t frightened by the risks of human-caused climate change just isn’t paying attention. We don’t need merely lowered emissions; we need a genuinely negative carbon rate, reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels.

But why can’t carbon capture help do that? Too much of the discussion is driven by an emotional sense that coal is bad in itself. Even if we had a use for coal that produces zero emissions, that line of thinking goes, we should still reject it because … well, just because coal is evil. This is irrational, rejecting economics as thoroughly as climate-change deniers reject science. Carbon capture works by sending the captured carbon underground, returning it to the earth. What’s not to like about that — particularly in Wyoming, with its saline aquifers, large coal reserves and stranded oil that can be extracted with carbon dioxide?

If you believe in both science and economics, the only question that should matter is whether carbon capture will work in Wyoming. The Department of Energy says it will. PacifiCorp says it won’t. 

With such wildly divergent conclusions, one must ask about each party’s methodology. Unfortunately, PacifiCorp does not provide its methodology. It just gives us assertions that the Department of Energy’s study is flawed. The technicalities of the assertions can be answered, but more interesting is the question of why PacifiCorp didn’t say that the study was incomplete when it had the chance. The utility presumably participated in the study, after all, with ample time and opportunity to point out inaccuracies in the inputs and analysis of the path the study was taking.

Why might PacifiCorp make such claims now? Well, perhaps that’s because the giant utility is caught in a bind: It provides electricity to Oregon and other states that want to ban power generated by coal. Meanwhile, PacifiCorp maximizes its profit by maximizing its expenditures, giving it a vested reason to want to close old plants and construct new power sources. And if it can wrap itself in the mantle of environmentalism while doing so, protecting itself from scrutiny, so much the better for PacifiCorp.

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This is not good for the environment, not good for consumers and especially not good for Wyoming. The state’s Public Service Commission challenged PacifiCorp’s 2019 plan because it did not trust that Wyoming’s concerns were being treated fairly by a large utility whose primary market interests are on the West Coast. Gov. Mark Gordon asked the federal Department of Energy to sponsor a study of carbon capture because he did not believe PacifiCorp’s bland and undocumented assertion that it had honestly considered carbon capture for Wyoming. The Department of Energy study validated his suspicion.

We need to turn our view of American energy right-side up. We need to abandon emotional responses to rational questions. We need to think clearly — in accord with the best environmental science and the best economic projections — about where we go from here. What those of us in Wyoming are finally coming to understand is that our destination shouldn’t be where PacifiCorp wants to take us. 

Terrence Manning

Terrence Manning is the CEO of Glenrock Energy, LLC. He has 40 years of project management and technical project experience in the field of energy development.

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  1. The title of this article seems to belie the contents. Manning is all emotion and no facts. The facts are that the DOE study is full of inaccuracies and its conclusions about emissions reductions are not supported or meaningful. Manning has his own agenda, to find someone who will pay to build carbon capture on obsolete coal plants to provide his little oil company with CO2. He knows he is running out of time as the coal industry and coal fired plants continue to be retired at an accelerating pace. The whole world is trying to figure out how to provide energy while decarbonizing the process. Proponents of CCUS have had several decades to make their technology part of the solution, and they have failed to accomplish it. Capital is flowing to the alternatives and if Wyoming were well led Wyoming might be in the forefront of renewable energy.

  2. Besides being financial fantasy , Carbon Capture is voodoo economics.
    The fossil fuel hegemony has long operated on voodoo economics. Nothing new under the Sun for that fossil thinking.
    The rules of physics and thermodynamics can be bent a little , but not broken.

  3. All that I well say is the Human Race has itself between a Rock and a Hard place. Moving forwards or backwards feels very impossible and down right frightening. None of the our future supply side collective choices are politically, economically nor environmentally correct. So let discuss the demand side of the equation. That where the problem begins and ends.

  4. What about Wyoming’s recent actions around carbon capture echo Mr. Manning’s sentiment’s around the free market? This past budget session the Governor and Legislature pushed forward HB200 to mandate carbon capture on Wyoming’s coal plants. This 1$ billion or more technology, not even proven at scale, the good Wyoming people will have to pay for in their power bills. This is no longer a matter of listening to the free market, this is no longer a matter of protecting Wyoming’s jobs and communities, its about a political agenda. We’ve gotten into the business of forcing the hand of utilities to make decisions that placates the Wyoming legislature from ever having to make meaningful change to our boom and bust revenue structure.

    Mr. Manning says “We don’t need merely lowered emissions; we need a genuinely negative carbon rate, reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels.” Then, Mr. Manning, will you ensure that every oil and gas company you sell carbon to for EOR will also use CCS technology?

    Let’s get real here.

  5. By and large I can support Mr. Manning’s stance in this editorial. Yet, If there ever was a subject area that could be rightly called a “can of worms,” the tangled topics of carbon capture, renewable energy, utility rates, grid reliability, and state revenues would be it.

    First, I don’t think its useful to automatically assume untruthfulness for entities seeking to maximize their financial returns going forward — this includes PacifiCorp and Glenrock Energy. Despite both parties, and the State of Wyoming having financial incentives here, we can certainly arrive at the truth of the matter with a dispassionate look at evidence as long as the assumptions don’t decide the truth of the matter itself. Unfortunately political risks are among those assumptions.

    From a document at the Public Service Commission we find that “…Glenrock plans to invest up to $900 million in capital expenditures between 2027 ‒ 2027 in a CCUS project at the Dave Johnston coal-fueled electricity generating station plus various oil field development projects specific to the Properties….”

    I wish someone could verify that the 2027-2027 time frame is accurate, or more likely a typographical error. In any event, this is a large expenditure and is tied to an economic use of the captured carbon dioxide that will benefit many other parties and ventures. I am dead set against carbon capture projects that cannot point to any benefit except to bury CO2 underground. What Glenrock Energy proposes is not such a project. The reason is that carbon capture does not come without large costs itself. It takes about one-third again as much work be done to capture the CO2 and place it permanently underground, as it does to operate the power plant self. Thus, cabon capture leads to a significantly increased expenditure for fuel. Having economic uses for the CO2 helps avoid these increased costs being laid on the rate payer, and it insulates a portion of the electrical generating sector important to Wyoming from becoming subject to the renewables gamesmanship of the electrical power markets. I hope it works as well as Glenrock Energy believes and I hope they get the chance to prove it.

    Glenrock Energy and Pacificorp, serving different energy markets, seeing different political risks, and having assets in different places, are quite possibly going to arrive at different views of what is in their best interest. The interests of everyone who consumes electrical power, and the PUC which is tasked with protecting such interests, should be lowest possible rates without compromising grid reliability. A coal-free future does not address those interests.

    1. I generally echo your sentiments here, but I also do have a fundamental problem with ‘offsetting’ the cost of carbon capture via enhanced oil recovery, which is so far nearly the only economically viable use of captured carbon. Presumably, the point of capturing carbon from coal-fired electrical generation in the first place is to keep the produced carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon capture offset by enhanced oil recovery does not accomplish that goal at a fundamental level.

      If you are using that captured carbon for the purpose of pumping additional fossil fuels out of the ground, which is then itself often burned as fuel in cars, trains, and planes, then the whole purpose of capturing the carbon in the first place is likely defeated in the end. Taking the carbon out of the ground, burning it, capturing as much of the generated CO2 as you can (but not all), then putting some if it back in the ground only to extract additional new carbon which you then burn without capturing ANY of that resulting CO2, is fundamentally inefficient, costly, unsustainable, and downright pointless.

      Marrying carbon capture to oil in this way appears to be a self-defeating prospect economically anyways, as the viability of carbon capture would then necessarily be dependent on a persistent, stable, and thriving oil market, which is 1.) not at all any kind of ‘given’ and 2.) deeply problematic given that many of the same pressures on coal are also pressuring oil. Trying to use successful oil markets to offset a failing coal market doesn’t really work if both markets are struggling simultaneously for similar reasons.

      It seems that leaving the carbon that is already permanently stored in the ground right where it is to begin with as much as absolutely possible is a much better objective, and one that isn’t at all served by the craziness of ‘carbon capture’. The whole purpose of carbon capture seems to be to provide a politically palatable ‘path’ for extractive industries to continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, while only really pretending to meet necessary and crucial environmental goals.

      1. In reference to Mr. Cook’s comments of 29 September 2020 which were written as a response to an article written by Terrence Manning -Wyo’s energy discussion needs more rationale, less emotion, I would post the following:
        The very fact that Mr. Cook speaks from an obviously honest but totally emotional perspective illustrates the very point Mr. Manning is making and that is the fact that we need more informed opinions and fewer opinions built upon mistruths and emotion. Mr. Cook seems to feel, along with a surprising number of others in our country and State, that we can simply turn the switch from fossil fuels to renewables and all our carbon emissions will magically go away. Petroleum provides countless, necessary products including, but most certainly not limited to, transportation fuel for automobiles, trucks, and jets. There are 1.1 billion light-duty internal combustion engine vehicles on the road today. Accenture predicts this number will double by 2050 despite growth in electric vehicles. This excludes heavy trucks, ships, planes, construction equipment, and farm equipment. By-products of oil are used to produce chemicals, plastics, lubricants, tars, waxes, medicines, etc. Also, many of the fertilizers, as well as pesticides, are made from either oil or its by-products. This list is most assuredly not comprehensive and the uses of oil alone account for a massive portion of necessary items in our day to day lives. Coal accounts for a host of other necessary day to day uses: It is used in the generation of electricity. Also, used in electrical utilities, and products like dyes, aspirins, soap, fibres, plastics and solvents have coal or coal by product. It is used in steel industry, pharmaceutical industry, cement manufacture, manufacturing of paper etc. Again, this list is also abbreviated but serves to identify things we take for granted.
        As stated in Mr. Manning’s article, wind and solar do, and should, have a place in the mix of electrical generation in our country. They simply cannot replace dispatchable sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear at this time and, from the perspective of numerous respected scientists, will not be able to do so for a very long time – if ever. So why must this be an either/or scenario? Based on analysis published by the International Energy Agency and Clean Air Task Force, carbon-capture and enhanced oil recovery result in a 63% net reduction in CO2 emissions for every barrel of oil produced. These activities can provide us with necessary fuels (and the by-products identified above) and to do so while reducing carbon emissions dramatically.
        All of this leads to the salient point that we must work through all viable and possible iterations of cleaning our air without severely crippling our economy or ruining the lives of countless people who need reliable electricity and the numerous necessities provided by fossil fuels. As we continue to work, diligently, to develop realistic battery storage and reduce the hidden environmental hazards of non-disposable wind turbine blades/equipment, we may very well be able to significantly reduce our dependence upon fossil fuels. That time is not here by any stretch of the imagination and to claim that it is, is an emotional over-reach and one which can severely harm our people, our country and, arguably, the world if it continues to be preached as fact.

        Steve Hughes
        H3 Energy, LLC – Partner

    2. Dear Kevin,

      Thank you for the comments and expression of support for the editorial. As Managing Director, Finance of Glenrock Energy, I wish to provide a clarification.

      The filing you cited did contain a typographical error (which we clarified in subsequent testimony)—Glenrock plans to invest up to $900 million in 2020 – 2027. This includes capital expenditures for the construction of a carbon-capture facility plus the redevelopment of Glenrock’s oil fields. These funds will be invested to create jobs and purchase goods and services predominantly in our local community in Wyoming. As you point out, the captured carbon dioxide will be used to implement enhanced oil recovery to increase the production of Glenrock’s oil fields—and potentially fields owned by others. At Glenrock Energy, we are committed to reducing carbon emissions through stewardship and efficient utilization of assets. This includes unlocking Wyoming’s vast conventional oil resource through carbon-capture and enhanced oil recovery.

      Again, we appreciate the comments and share your interest in an open, objective discussion regarding Wyoming’s future.

  6. Mr. Manning failed to cite any scientific evidence that carbon capture is possible or practical. Until that evidence is available, we have to proceed with best available solution,which is renewable energy sources.Gene