Coal, the Environment and Bridging the Gap
By Mark Gordon, Governor of Wyoming
It’s no secret that Wyoming’s Powder River Basin has seen declines due to market conditions. The continued low price of natural gas, flat or relatively low load growth and the increased deployment of renewable generation are all factors that have contributed to coal’s reduced market share. Industry and government estimates of the potential future decline vary, from 20 percent to as much as three-quarters of current production over the next decade. Nevertheless, I believe coal will play an important part in our country’s future. With the advent of new and improved technologies, coal will play a vital role, not only in providing for our energy needs but also in actually removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, thereby addressing climate change. Carbon-negative solutions must be part of any plan going forward. Simply slowing the growth of emissions or concentrating only on so-called “carbon-neutral” strategies is no longer enough.
Too often, we pick winners and losers. We’ll say one thing is bad, and something else is good. For too long, the overly simplistic narrative of “renewables are good and coal is bad” has been driven on the national stage. This false message does a great disservice to the miners who have powered our nation and hinders the efforts of those working to truly reduce the carbon footprint of both the United States and the rest of the world.
Rather than finding villains to blame, we need to reframe our thinking by removing national rhetoric and political talking points and putting the focus on solutions. Addressing carbon emissions is a technological challenge that industry is solving. It has a proven success record of using technology to reduce emissions – just look at NOx and SOx emissions since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970.
Just like NOx and SOx, carbon emissions can be measured and managed and their successful reduction can be verified. It requires technological advancements, which in turn take time, money, courage and persistence. An “all of the above” energy strategy is a superior way to approach the challenge of providing affordable and reliable energy and to confront climate change responsibly while understanding the best uses of our natural resources. Coal must be part of a portfolio. We must find more rapid ways to deploy better, cleaner technologies worldwide and do it soon.
In Wyoming, we are solutions-oriented. We know how to balance environmental concerns with energy needs. As the supplier of over onethird of this country’s coal and a top-10 producer of oil and natural gas, Wyoming has a pivotal role to play in this country’s energy future and our state is engaged in research and innovation that will allow us to tackle the important issues of this generation. Carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS) is a proven way to reduce emissions from fossil plants, as well as industrial sources.
Some oppose anything relating to fossil fuels. They insist carbon capture is uneconomic, unproven and a deterrent to true change. This is simply not true. CCUS has a proven track record of success, but it requires research, funding and testing for those solutions to be deployed commercially across the coal fleet.
Reaching this level of commercialization will continue to take broad support. Wyoming has shown its commitment through direct investment in the Integrated Test Center – a state-of-the-art facility that allows researchers to test post-combustion capture and utilization technologies using coal-derived flue gas directly from Basin Electric’s Dry Fork Station in Gillette, Wyoming. The ITC is one of only a handful of facilities in the world where real-world testing of carbon capture and carbon utilization technologies takes place.
Technology offers unlimited opportunities and the progress we will see in the coal industry is no different. Today, researchers are actively working to develop commercially viable products made from CO2 and coal. Technologies like advanced building materials that are stronger yet lighter, and fibers that can make cars, trains, bicycles and airplanes more efficient.
BECCS (bio-energy carbon capture and storage) is another potential opportunity. While carbon capture offers opportunities if value streams can be created from the use of CO2, BECCS combines carbon capture and storage with bio-fuel co-firing of coal power plants. This option creates the opportunity for a net-negative carbon emission while burning coal for electricity generation.
Wyoming is putting its money where its mouth is, both on the state and national level. Funding is critical to the advancement of technology. In addition to the ITC, we have invested in our School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming and appropriated general funds for CCUS projects. On the federal level, Wyoming senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi are championing policies that provide financial and tax incentives to developers of CCUS projects, and they have built bipartisan coalitions that support CCUS policies.
I believe we need to fight aggressively to prevent states from overreaching their authority in blocking construction of coal ports. In the case of the proposed Millennium coal terminal, Washington state’s own analysis indicates that if Asian power plants utilized Powder River coal, net emissions would be reduced. Powder River coal is lower in sulphur, ash and mercury than other alternatives available in the Pacific region and our mining, reclamation and safety record is the best in the world. The existence of that terminal would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
Myopically pursuing only one alternative understates the value of our other natural resources, such as open space and wildlife. Clearly, wind and solar do not emit carbon when they generate energy; however, the manufacturing of their components does. A comprehensive analysis of the full footprint – including carbon – over each technology’s life cycle is critical to make informed decisions. Coal is a vital asset in an affordable energy strategy. Utilizing the current infrastructure of our coal fleet and adding emission controls for carbon should be viable options for anyone interested in real solutions to environmental concerns.
Meeting our energy needs and addressing environmental concerns are not mutually exclusive. Too often, we let issues polarize us and isolate us into only working with those with whom we agree. I’ve led my life knowing that being at the table and having the tough conversations – even when you know you won’t agree with what others at the table may think – is how you truly move the needle. I’ve worked in the oil and gas industry and I’ve worked with environmental groups. I’ve allowed drilling on my ranch and supported organizations focused on sustainability and conservation. I’ve allowed sage grouse conservation and carbon credit programs on my land. We must work together to find practical solutions.
One group simply trying to crush the other is of no value in working towards a better way forward. Poverty has never been good for the environment and so we must seek solutions and better technologies that address our environmental concerns, remove CO2 from our atmosphere and assure all people of affordable, reliable, more efficient energy. Working towards those ends is how we will bridge the divide and leave our world better for our time here. Working with each other instead of digging into our corners is how we get things done in Wyoming, and it’s how real progress is made.
Mark Gordon was elected Wyoming’s 33rd Governor, on Nov. 6, 2018. He was sworn into office on Jan. 7, 2019.