ABOUT THIS SERIES: Students from The University of Montana School of Journalism, with the help of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, reported and wrote stories for New West on the energy economy of the Rocky Mountain region. The project originated as part of the Green Thread initiative at UM.
The massive coal mines throughout the Powder River basin of Wyoming speak to the importance of this fossil fuel for the national and regional economy. Coal generates nearly half of the electricity in the United States and Wyoming produces more coal than any other state in the nation.
But coal is also responsible for large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and the production of other pollutants like acid rain. The challenge seemed intractable—the U.S. relies on coal, but it is so environmentally damaging.
Then the answer seemed to arrive with two magic words—Clean Coal.
The Dream Denied
Neighboring Montana is also home to vast amounts of coal, though the state has yet to tap into its reserves with the same voracity as Wyoming. The state’s governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, has made a national name for himself by calling for increased use of clean coal techniques, which include carbon sequestration, coal gasification and coal-to-liquids production.
His calls seemed to gather national support when then-Sen. Joe Biden gave a 2008 speech in West Virginia promising that the Obama administration would invest in research on clean coal—the future of the coal industry.
Since then, though, clean coal technology has all but gone up in smoke.
“It has been slowed in terms of the rapidity of clean coal development,” said Tom Kaiserski, project manager of energy promotion and development at the Montana Department of Commerce.
That is not to say that the fossil fuel has lost its friends, said community activist Shannon Anderson.
“Coal has a future politically,” said Anderson, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. That’s especially true, she said, among coal state Democrats like Schweitzer.
However, Rick Gilliam, vice president of North American government affairs policy for solar company SunEdison, said he is betting those coal Democrats probably won’t aggressively pursue clean coal technology.
“During election time, there’s often almost always a lot of talk about this new technology. The different political players are playing to their audience or their hopeful audience and no one really wants to alienate any potential constituents,” Gilliam said.
The Cap-and-Trade Question
So far, clean coal remains a tiny fraction of coal’s role in the national power equation.
There are only three carbon sequestration and gasification plants in the U.S. that are close to being up and running. The Edwardsport Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle Station, located in Edwardsport, Ind., was approved for construction in 2007 by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and is operated by Duke Energy. That facility is set to start commercial power production in 2012.
The Texas Clean Energy Project will be located about 15 miles west of Odessa and will use both carbon sequestration and gasification to produce energy. The U.S. Department of Energy made contributions of $350 million and $100 million in December 2009 and August 2010, respectively, and construction of the facility is expected to begin later this year. The projected date of production is late 2014.
The FutureGen plant currently based in Jacksonville, Fla., has been in development the longest of the three plants. As reported in an article published in The Atlantic, FutureGen—a plant proposed along with similar facilities in Australia, Europe, and China—is just now getting through the tangle of Congress, while the Chinese counterpart is set to open in 2013. The FutureGen plant is not expected to store carbon dioxide until 2016.
The coal gasification facilities being constructed are all located in lower-elevation places. Both Gilliam and Anderson say the coal gasification process appears to be less effective at higher elevations—a problem for coal-producing states Wyoming and Montana.
However, a gasification test center is being built in Cheyenne by the state of Wyoming and General Electric. The center will use the lower-sulfur Powder River Basin coal at much higher altitude; as of yet, both of these factors have been untested in the coal gasification process.
Another hurdle clean coal faces is the extremely high costs. The facilities are multibillion-dollar projects.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to clean coal investment is the political one. Some 2,500 miles away in Washington, D.C., congressional wrangling over so-called cap-and-trade legislation has reached a stalemate, and that has left many companies wondering whether to gamble on the still-emerging technology.
Kaiserski said putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions is the key to funding clean coal facilities. The cap-and-trade bill aimed to put a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases plants and other facilities were allowed to emit before having to pay for every metric ton of gases emitted thereafter.
“Without having something in place that places the cost on carbon dioxide, which makes the alternatives to coal more attractive, you don’t get the kind of incentive to drive that clean coal technology,” Kaiserski said.
The gasification of coal provides an easier way to separate and sequester pollutants like carbon dioxide. The burning of coal gas is much cleaner than conventional coal burning.
“When you turn coal to gas, you get about 50 percent less emissions,” Anderson said.
Since the coal gasification has been basically untried in the West, the main challenge is figuring out how to use it in electricity generation.
“That’s technology pretty well understood, but blending gasified coal with power production hasn’t been done a lot,” said Kaiserski.
Kaiserski also talked about the possibility of using captured carbon to assist in the extraction of oil, a method he said is frequently used in places like Texas. The carbon dioxide captured from a coal plant could be forced into the ground to push oil to the earth’s surface. By sequestering carbon from coal plants underground, Kaiserski said the emissions from the coal plant would be nullified.
Coal Poised for Expansion
Even as the future of clean coal efforts remain up in the air, the mining of coal in the Rocky Mountains continues to expand.
Montana’s Indian reservations are the next player set to enter the market. The Otter Creek mine is located in eastern Montana, just off the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, which stands to make a hefty sum from area mines on traditionally used land around the reservation. Arch Coal, owners of the lease for the Otter Creek mine, is still open to talking about development of a clean coal plant, according to Kaiserksi, but the company’s main focus is mining.
The Crow tribe is also in the process of developing a coal-to-liquids facility. The coal-to-liquids process yields a diesel fluid that Gov. Schweitzer talked about in a 2006 interview with 60 Minutes. According to Kaiserski, the Crow facility has been scaled down from the originally proposed 50,000-barrel-a-day facility to a smaller 8,000- to 10,000-barrel-a-day modular facility in an effort to reduce costs to the tribe.
“As the technology really proves itself, they can sort of add modules and add capacity,” Kaiserski said.
The fact of the matter is that clean coal techniques are untested and unreliable compared to the traditional burning of coal or oil. Add to that the lukewarm reception clean coal has received from environmentalists, and many like Anderson wonder whether the clean coal technology is worth the investment. Either way, conventional coal mining and burning will continue, she said.
Kaiserski said he recognizes there are many factors that will influence how clean coal technology is developed in the U.S., but he believes it will eventually hit the mainstream. The big question for him, though, is how quickly the government moves to speed up the advancement of the technologies.
“It’s hard to put a timeframe on it,” he said. “It’s hard to say what the future’s going to hold.”
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