Podcast examines alternatives to coal decline in Wyoming
Wyoming traditionally has more coal production than West Virginia. The states are generally one and two at the national level. But like in Mountain State, coal production in “Big Wyoming” has been on the decline for more than a decade. Despite this, heads of state are pinning their hopes on carbon capture technology.
Wyoming public media reporter Cooper McKim produced a nine-part podcast on efforts in Wyoming. He spoke with Eric Douglas about what he learned.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me the basics of the podcast to begin with.
McKim: Coal production here has been pretty much down since 2008. And job growth has come with it. There have been several bankruptcies and the local economy depends on it for the majority of its income. Schools depend on it. It’s a little different from West Virginia in that we have so many benefits, basically the mineral industry, it’s paid so much, it makes the quality of life so good. And with that in mind, the main effort has been to maintain it.
In 2008, there was this idea. A lawmaker in Gillette, our main coal capital, where all mining really takes place, thought carbon emissions, carbon dioxide was the problem, but if we could deal with it, maybe coal-fired power plants would stop going offline and demand for coal would maintain. It hasn’t really taken off, as it recognizes climate change.
I wanted to take that idea and really explore how the idea of carbon capture came about, because there is this parallel between climate technology and the maintenance of fossil fuels. Looks like they’re going against each other, but they really aren’t.
Douglas: Looks like there was actually a program in place to encourage carbon capture projects. Was this funded by the state itself? Or where does it come from?
McKim: So there have been a bunch of different investments in carbon capture. And the main one was the integrated test center, which was basically a facility installed next to a coal-fired power plant here. And then they launched a competition to be the first patent. The basis of the podcast was to say, let’s bring a group of international companies to Wyoming and show that we can do it, to show that it is possible.
The investment was really in this facility. It was, I think, about $ 15 million. But there was also money from several utilities that went there. And that was going to reward whoever produced the best technology. Carbon capture itself is billions of dollars less than commercial viability.
Douglas: But it wasn’t just about capturing the carbon emissions, it was about trying to develop a system to capture the carbon emissions and then use the carbon as a by-product as well. So you were trying to reduce emissions, but also to find a use for the material.
McKim: Yeah, so Governor Matt Mead, the governor before our current one, had the idea that carbon capture and sequestration is great, but you just put it underground. What are you doing with it? These things are expensive, which offsets the cost by creating a different profit from another resource that it produces. The use of carbon capture is somewhat of a sub-industry of carbon capture. And it’s not trillions, but probably billions of commercial viability. The only areas he’s really working in right now is producing concrete from it and some are trying to produce some kind of renewable gas.
Douglas: So what did you find? What was the end result?
McKim: So what I found is that carbon capture is very different from how carbon capture helps coal. This industry itself could very well do and potentially affect net zero emissions. But the timeline for this is just different from the timeline for coal demand. It is already going down very quickly. In the Appalachians, it happened even earlier than here.
The reality is that things are moving really fast. And carbon capture is moving really, really slowly. And so that kind of example is that we maybe don’t have enough time, and other people in the state want to look elsewhere to diversify economically in a safer way, potentially a little bit wider, offering short term solutions because it is not providing jobs at the moment. Hundreds of people have lost their jobs in coal bankruptcies in recent years. And there are no jobs replaced by carbon capture yet. The deadlines are therefore quite simply shifted.
Douglas: What was your big takeaway at the end of the podcast?
McKim: Economic diversification cannot really be replaced by a single industry. Whether or not you maintain something, it will have to be bigger than a single industry. What I have found is that there are other people who want to not only maintain the demand for coal, but to diversify a bit beyond it. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t efforts, but the main effort is to turn the city into a Silicon Valley for carbon products, be it carbon dioxide or coal. directly itself. And I think that will be the main effort and what I think I found in the podcast is.
Douglas: What did you learn during the podcast that we haven’t covered?
McKim: The podcast is actually very humorous. A competition ensues that involves an outsider who captures carbon. We kind of build a friendship throughout the show. He talks about the pain of losing coal and coal plants. I lost my father when I brought the story back. And so I talked about it. There’s a lot of sentimentality and humor, and he kind of tries to approach that in a way that isn’t boring. So I hope it’s an interesting story. And I think there are a lot of parallels with West Virginia. So I hope some of your audience will find it convincing.
Podcast Carbon Valley examines carbon sequestration and alternative uses of carbon.