Western leaders come to Wyoming to learn about the state’s hope for solving climate change
A group of about 30 people in suits walked toward the Dry Fork coal plant last week, just north of Gillette. A loud hum of machinery echoed in the background.
The folks were getting a tour of the attached Integrated Test Center (ITC) that has started studying carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). The tour was part of a workshop about ‘decarbonization’ that brought out federal and state leaders led by Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon. This is Gordon’s initiative as chair of the Western Governors’ Association, a group of 22 western governors, to address climate change.
“Anybody who's been a hunter, who's been in the mountains, can look at those, what used to be glaciers, that are now snowfields, or snowfields that they no longer can see, can recognize that things are changing,” Gordon said regarding climate change.
Carbon capture: the partial solution
Wyoming has an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy to meet climate goals, meaning there’s a focus on renewables, nuclear and trying to make traditional fossil fuels ‘cleaner.’ One way the state is doing that is through CCUS development: the focus of the workshop and tour.
Wyoming is sinking tens of millions of dollars into CCUS development. A technology that is complicated and controversial. But one hope is that it can remove carbon, a top contributor to climate change, from the fossil fuel process and in turn keep the fossil fuel industry viable in a warming world.
The tour centered around the ITC, one of a handful of facilities like it in the world, which is located right next to the Dry Fork coal plant. It’s basically a ‘playground’ for CCUS research, where companies can use carbon produced from the plant, and try to capture it and find a way to use it or store it underground. That is the ultimate goal of CCUS, but it’s largely in a research phase.
Will Morris, ITC technical director, said the research is kind of like getting an education – it takes time.
“I would call this maybe the junior high to high school phase of the technology development,” he said. “We've gotten the fundamentals worked out, we've got a really good idea of how the technologies work, but we're furthering that education, and we're getting them prepared to go out into the world.”
Carbon capture push back
Some environmental and conservation groups think it’s an expensive, uphill battle that hasn’t been proven on a commercial scale.
“It would make more sense to put more resources into developing renewable energy into resiliency in the grid, rather than spending time and money on carbon capture on coal plants,” said Robin Bagley, executive director of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
Notably, some Wyomingites have already had to bear the burden of initial CCUS costs. Wyoming Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) customers began paying a 0.3 percent surcharge for the utility to explore the viability of retrofitting their coal-fired power plants with CCUS technology.
This was mandated by state law, in an effort to prevent coal-fired plants from retiring early, which Gordon pointed out could also come at a cost to Wyomingites. He said just because climate change is pressing, doesn’t mean those jobs need to go away.
“What I don't think that equates to, is that we need to shut off what we currently depend on,” he said. “Moreover, I don't think it means that the jobs and the careers that we have in our energy sector need to be shut down.”
Gordon hopes CCUS can prevent that, and he and other advocates hope by the end of the decade the state can prove the technology is viable. And, the clock is ticking, because the United States has a goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2035, which means the amount of emissions, like carbon, that are produced and released into the atmosphere, can’t be more than what’s being removed from production and the atmosphere.
The Gillette visit was the first of several workshops that will be held over the next year exploring ‘decarbonization’, as part of the Western Governors’ Association.