(Casper Star Tribune, April 10) – Last week, Wyoming received yet another powerful, personal reminder of the impacts of declining energy prices when hundreds of coal miners in the Northeastern corner of our state were laid off. These weren’t the first hardworking men and women to lose their jobs due to the energy downturn. Across Wyoming energy producers have been forced to scale back operations and reduce staff.
There’s a well-known bumper sticker in Wyoming that says, “Lord just give me one more boom and I promise not to waste it.” State leaders recognized several years ago the challenges fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas would continue to face. They used their last boom wisely, investing in protecting and preserving Wyoming’s natural resources for the long term. Making them more efficient, cleaner and more affordable. They made an investment in the states’ greatest revenue driver that will pay dividends for generations to come – technology.
While this is of little solace to the miners and energy workers who have lost their jobs, it’s important to know that Wyoming has been laying the groundwork to weather this storm and help keep our natural resources as a major part of our nation’s energy portfolio.
When it comes to ensuring a future role for resources such as coal, technology is key. And Wyoming has taken note. In 2006, the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources was established to foster the next generation of cutting edge energy technologies, positioning Wyoming to be a global leader in building a secure and sustainable energy future. Two years ago, the Wyoming State Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead authorized the construction of an Integrated Test Center to develop commercially viable uses for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. This will be one of the only facilities in the world where researchers can test their technology with emissions from an operational coal-fired power plant.
Wyoming is not only keeping pace with technological advancements in energy production, we’re driving them.
Think of this, coal power plants are built to run for 50 years, so today’s oldest plants were built in the mid-1960’s. In 1966, the average fuel mileage of a car was 14 mpg. Today, it is 26 mpg, an 85 percent improvement! Just like all of the everyday items surrounding us, energy technology has improved at a rapid rate. Many plants reached the end of their useful life and needed to be closed; the question is what will they be replaced with. New coal plants provide more electricity with less coal and fewer emissions. Environmentalists should be embracing new generation technologies as they can provide reliable power, very efficiently and cleanly.
Readily available information shows that about 65 GW of proposed coal plants were cancelled in the last decade. Those plants would have used about 158 million tons of coal per year. The vogue thing right now is to say coal plants are not being built due to natural gas prices. Well today, that does hold some water. However, what about the Sunflower Plant in Kansas that would have been powered with Wyoming coal? In 2007, when then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and environmental groups ramped up their challenges to the project, the average price of natural gas was $6.97/MMBtu, well above the quoted $2.25 price sited for PRB coal to be competitive. Or what about in 2008, when Henry Hub prices spiked to $13.68 MMBtu and the Wisconsin PSC rejected the Nelson Dewey plant citing concerns about global warming?
The price of natural gas is a short-term challenge, but a much bigger problem is the increased regulations and the cuts to clean coal research. In the business world, uncertainty is often the same as a rejection and companies are hesitant to act when politicians threaten to put them out of business. Even though coal provides three times the electricity in America as renewables, the President’s most recent budget provides only one-eighth of the research dollars for coal as it does for renewables.
Given workable timeframes, adequate resources and reasonable regulations, the coal industry has a future. Nobody talks about acid rain anymore because the technology to remove sulfur dioxide was developed. Carbon management shouldn’t be a political issue; it should be treated as an engineering challenge. Time and time again technology has shown that coal can be used in ways that meet society’s evolving environmental standards. Thankfully, Wyoming has stepped up and is at the forefront of leading the charge for new energy technologies.
Jason Begger is executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.