Wyoming lawmakers are fighting to restore coal to viability.
The state relies heavily on revenue from the resource for much of its public spending, including education, law enforcement, and road maintenance. So far this year, Wyoming has passed a number of rules making it difficult for utility companies to shut down their coal-fired power plants. Governor Mark Gordon also approved a $ 1.2 million fund to sue other states that are no longer accepting power from these facilities – or are otherwise obstructing the Wyoming coal industry.
These are just the latest in over a decade and millions of dollars spent propping up the dying industry. Much of those dollars went to one company in particular: carbon capture technology, devices that can divert CO2 from the chimney of a coal-fired power plant to be buried underground or to operate.
In 2014, Wyoming spent $ 15 million to build a carbon capture test center attached to a coal-fired power plant and to attract a major competition, the Carbon XPrize, to use the site. A new, 10-part podcast series from Carbon Public Media called Carbon Valley follows the competition and delves into a crucial question related to the state's investment: Will any of this actually help the people of Wyoming? Or will the decline of coal outperform this emerging technology?
“Over the past decade, Wyoming officials have been quite prominent in making carbon capture a potential way to offset the cost of a coal-fired power plant and keep it open,” said Cooper McKim, show host and energy reporter for Wyoming's only public radio station Grist. “And it's a race because they close very quickly. And when too many are close together, Wyoming coal really doesn't get much used anymore. “
The Carbon XPrize, hosted by a non-profit organization that organizes competitions to accelerate technological development, is designed to support the most promising ideas to convert trapped CO2 into marketable products like concrete or fuel. In 2019, the finalists were moved to Wyoming's new test center in Gillette, where flue gas from a neighboring coal-fired power station is fed into individual laboratories. For Wyoming, there is hope that creating a demand for CO2 could make coal-fired power plants more economical and bring new businesses into the state.
The teams fought for up to $ 8 million to convert the greatest amount of CO2 into the most valuable goods. The stakes were high, but significantly higher for the Wyoming communities. Cities like Gillette are facing the termination of coal mining and power plant jobs. Gillette, who has been trying to market itself as “Carbon Valley” for several years, is currently paying a public relations firm more than $ 16,000 a month to attract the research, development, and commercial uses of carbon capture and exploitation, as well as new products used for Coal itself.
XPrize attendees demonstrated their technology at Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant in Gillette, Wyoming, Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images
In the first five episodes of the podcast, which is in the middle of its run, McKim visits the testing center, meets the XPrize candidates, and speaks to former miners, local officials, lawmakers, scientists, investors, and other stakeholders about the two key factors pursuing the prospects of the state – money and time.
Carbon capture and use proponents tell him they have high upfront costs but trillions of dollars in economic potential. Some believe it could really save coal, while others suggest that, at best, it will help cut emissions before coal-fired power plants are gone for good. “At least we have to try,” a Gillette County commissioner told him, acknowledging that carbon capture is not a silver bullet for his community.
However, critics say McKim that technology gives people false hope. Saving coal jobs is a short term necessity, but carbon sequestration is a long term bet. Rob Godby, a University of Wyoming economist, says carbon sequestration might have helped the state had he started working on it 10 years earlier, but Republican leaders wasted too much time denying climate change.
“If there is no climate change, there is no justification for developing low-carbon technologies like carbon capture,” Godby told McKim. “Ironically, Republicans killed carbon sequestration just as much as anyone else.”
Then the question arises whether carbon sequestration is naturally helpful in combating climate change. McKim told Grist that he would often hear proponents of carbon capture saying that technology was a necessary tool to reduce emissions and quoted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change without acknowledging that this does not always translate into a net gain for the atmosphere. For example, if the equipment runs on fossil fuels, this may not result in an overall reduction in emissions.
The series' main character is an XPrize candidate named Jason Salfi of Dimensional Energy, a startup trying to convert trapped CO2 into jet fuel. Salfi, a former skateboard company owner and avid environmentalist, prides himself on the fact that his technology is the only one in the competition that runs on solar energy.
McKim makes the podcast personal, tracing a parallel story of his internal experience as he grapples with the question of whether this technology could ever be used for Wyoming – or for the climate. “We heard yes, no, yes, no … it will … not … help coal,” he says in one episode. “Here's what I found: If there is one answer you want to find, you probably will.”
“I wanted me to be a character in it,” he said to Grist. “I thought humor and the addition of my own vulnerabilities were a way of showing that I was just like everyone else.”
The series does not seek to examine the feasibility of carbon capture in contexts outside of Wyoming's coal industry, which has been the subject of much discussion since Joe Biden joined the White House. The question of whether technology should be part of his clean energy plans has divided climate experts and activists alike.
Opponents argue that it will not reduce the harmful soot and chemicals that power plants and other polluting facilities emit in disproportionately large black and brown communities. It also does not cover all of the greenhouse gases that are produced when fossil fuels are extracted and transported.
Some proponents of the technology claim that its main application is in industries like steel and cement that cannot be powered by solar or wind power, and that in addition to emissions from burning coal or natural gas, CO2 is released from chemical reactions.
In this larger debate on carbon sequestration, however, few prefer to use it in U.S. coal-fired power plants, which already cost more to run than natural gas and renewables without the addition of expensive new equipment. At least a few outside of Wyoming.
In one particularly personal episode of the series, McKim compares Wyoming's attachment to his coal-based economy to his own grief after his father dies. “Wyoming is in the shock and denial phase,” he says, “but now that that shock has become law, there are very real efforts to stop this transition that is happening on a global scale.”