While the future of Wyoming’s coal industry looks bleak, state leaders believe the Cowboy State may engineer a future for the sector that’s long served as the backbone of its economy through carbon capture and storage, a process that could mitigate or potentially eliminate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources Director of Policy and Economics Kipp Coddington said the state’s researchers are at the forefront of developing new technology.

“Without a doubt, the state of Wyoming is a world leader in research and projects related to carbon capture and storage,” Coddington said.

And the technology could address a wider need.

While the global focus on limiting carbon emissions has hurt demand for Wyoming coal, it has also partially driven the need for carbon capture technology.

“Just about any global outlook for energy development considers carbon capture and storage (necessary) to meet the [CO2 reduction] thresholds,”  said Scott Quinlan, a University of Wyoming geologist and the research director at UW’s School of Energy Resources. “There isn’t an outlook yet that says we’ll get there without carbon capture and storage.”

Scientists have identified carbon dioxide as one the main greenhouse gases responsible for climate change and burning coal produces large CO2 emissions.

While a number of people still challenge the science underpinning global warming concerns, international markets and regulators have bought in, making climate change, at the very least, an economic reality. The demand for coal has fallen globally as countries have entered into agreements like the 1992 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, in which nations set goals  involving the reduction of worldwide CO2 emissions.

Those agreements have also led to increasingly stringent regulations on CO2 emissions, causing  further contraction of coal markets.

Wyoming exports most of its coal, which means it cannot insulate itself from the effects of shifting international markets — the only way coal can have a profitable future is through the development of low-carbon uses.

The state has not been blindsided by these changes, however. For more than a decade, Wyoming has been at the forefront of researching carbon capture and storage — a process of collecting CO2 emissions and sequestering them underground, thereby preventing them from entering the atmosphere.

Quinlan participated in a project dedicated to researching possibilities for underground storage in CO2 that began in the state 10 years ago. He said researchers participating in the project saw the direction markets for carbon emissions were headed and knew their home state would have to adapt.

“We all knew that coal is kind of the economic backbone of Wyoming, and if it was ever going to be competitive in carbon-constrained markets, we would have to start figuring out what to do with CO2,” Quinlan said.

Quinlan and his team studied carbon sequestration at the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs, the state’s largest CO2 emitter. When that work began, Quinlan said there was little guidance available to his team regarding how to conduct sequestration research.

The group set about developing a foundation for carbon capture research that scientists in the state and the world could build on.

“We spent a lot of time…developing a methodology that we could use in other places in the state and that others could depend on us for and use that cookie cutter in other places in the country,” Quinlan said.


Legislative buy-in

Forward-thinking legislation also helped Wyoming take the lead in carbon capture development, Coddington said.

Roughly a decade ago, Coddington said Wyoming lawmakers passed a package of legislation that supported carbon capture and storage research by clarifying legal ambiguities related to the process and removing regulatory obstacles to developing it.

“Wyoming was one of the first states, and remains one of the only states, to have those laws,” Coddington said.

State lawmakers have continued to support research through legislative appropriations, and Wyoming governors — including current Gov. Mark Gordon — have consistently urged investment into carbon capture development.

Federal lawmakers have made efforts to support the technology’s development, also.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, has worked on two pieces of bipartisan federal legislation — the FUTURE Act, which offered tax credit to researchers using and storing CO2, and the USE IT Act, which incentivized research into commercial uses for CO2 — designed to energize carbon capture and storage research.


Racing against the clock

While Wyoming’s efforts to support and pursue carbon capture research have yielded progress, daunting questions about the technology’s ability to re-energize the state’s energy sector remain. And the deadline for answering those questions may be fast approaching.

Wyoming researchers have proven that carbon capture and storage are possible but have done so using relatively small-scale projects.

Before technology can be widely deployed, researchers will need to demonstrate it can both function on a larger scale and operate in a cost-effective manner.

Quinlan said he is very confident that large-scale carbon storage facilities can function safely.

“I’m confident today that we could go out there and stick commercial quantities of CO2 in the ground without any adverse effects,” Quinlan said.

But researchers are less certain about the economic viability of scaled-up projects.

“It’s still an expensive technology, but you could say that about any early technology,” Coddington said. “…There’s an urgency to get these costs down. Progress is being made, we just have to do everything faster and faster and faster because we’re racing against the clock.”

As researchers work to advance carbon capture technology and drive its associated costs down, the industry it hopes to save continues a steep decline.

“There’s only 130 or 140 power plants left that are burning Wyoming coal, and over the next 10, 15, 20 years it is likely that a lot of those plants are going to shut down,” Coddington said.

The loss of those plants would not only limit the economic potential of carbon capture and storage, it could hinder research into the process, much of which relies on emissions  generated.

Barrasso said a fully realized carbon capture solution to CO2 emissions would have to be embraced not just nationally, but internationally. CO2 emissions have a global impact, after all, and if the United States succeeds in perfecting carbon capture technology but other countries continue burning CO2, the benefits would be negligible.

“If we don’t come up with a technology that works globally, you can do everything you want here in the United States, but it doesn’t address what’s happening with carbon worldwide,” Barrasso said.

Whether that happens will, again, depend on how quickly and efficiently carbon capture processes can scale up.

Coddington said he is confident carbon capture and storage can reduce CO2 emissions, and that research into the technology has full support in the state, but he’s unsure whether it will reward the faith Wyoming has placed in it.

“Whether all of this is enough to convince the utilities and utility regulators that this technology is ready to be deployed — that all remains an open question,” Coddington said. “And trying to answer that question is why I lose sleep at night.”


Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.

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