Carbon capture, utilization and storage continue to gain steam across Wyoming, with Governor Mark Gordon urging Congress last month to consider a bill that supports infrastructure for the technology. The hope is that carbon capture tech will take off in Wyoming and help offset the cost and emissions of a coal plant - and then keep it open. There's plenty of doubt about whether that can work.
Wyoming leaders have supported the tech since around 2008, when coal production in the state first began to decline. Energy and Natural Resources reporter Cooper McKim spoke with former Governor Dave Freudenthal about the origins of the state's vision for carbon capture and why it didn't gain traction right away. Noa Greenspan, producer for the audio series Carbon Valley, put together the interview.
Cooper McKim: So before we get into carbon capture, I wanted to start with the year 2008. When you were Governor, and [coal production began its decline in the Powder River Basin], do you remember that year as being significant? And as that marking something that was bigger than just a momentary drop?
Dave Freudenthal: Well, the reality is you could see the effects both in Wyoming and nationwide of the results of horizontal drilling and fracking. And you could figure out that natural gas was going to be a fairly intense competitor for coal because, at the end of the day, utilities are agnostic about fuel source, they really aren't attached to one fuel source or another, they're attached to the cheapest capacity for generating electricity. The second thing is that obviously, the Bush administration had chosen to support production tax credit for renewables. And what was clear is that they were not going to provide the same kind of incentives for the burning of coal and fossil fuels. So I didn't view it as some start year, that it was really more the evolution of the way the energy sector was undergoing a transformation.
CM: Right. To some extent, you could see the writing on the wall.
DF: Well, let me say I could see part of the writing. It turned out to be uglier than I thought.
CM: What was striking to me, that makes it seem like you saw the writing on the wall, was that you did make some action on carbon capture in 2008 which would create some extra push for coal.
DF: The discussions about it actually preceded 2008. It really grew out of a lot of discussions at the Oil and Gas Commission related to the utilization of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. So we had that knowledge base. And then you could see, regardless of your attitude on climate change, that the public policy was moving in a negative fashion from the perception of coal utilization. And since coal was so important to the state, we should to the extent we could get ahead of the curve.
CM: It sort of sounds like the idea and the incentive was to help agriculture, it was to help coal and it was to help oil and gas, it was sort of to help everything.
DF: Yeah, I mean, we're a commodity state. There was some pushback when I began to promote all of this, because it was viewed as some as an endorsement of climate change and all of the discussions. But from my point of view, the more important aspect was not whether an individual believed in it, but that the world was moving in that direction. And the marketplace into which Wyoming wanted to move its commodities was becoming increasingly sensitive to the issue. And we as a state needed to understand that we may not like the marketplace realities, but they are what they are, and we should prepare for them.
CM: Was there any kind of picture in folks head of, 'This is what we want to do: we want to capture carbon dioxide and put it underground and we're gonna have this market, or was it more like, we'll see where this goes and hope it works?' In other words, was it a grand idea or was it an inkling that you would water over time?
DF: Well, let me put it this way. I know what I thought ought to be done. Some of the legislators just tolerated it, because well, you got to put up with the governor. And some of them understood that this was a potentially important step going forward for fossil fuel states. But in terms of, was there some outpouring of legislative vision? No.
CM: In that sense, are you surprised at how much fire it's caught in the state? With Governor Mead there was sort of an expansion of this idea, sort of a building off of your idea. They kind of took the baton and ran with it. Do you see it that way?
DF: I think every governor since has. Gov. Gordon's working on it, particularly in terms of trying to get some sort of additional federal support, because the real problem with utilization of CO2 for alternative purposes, or air capture and storage, is the economics need to be worked through in order to scale it up. And the scaling up part is probably beyond what any one state can fund.
CM: I've been talking to a lot of investors in carbon capture who say the same thing. I mean, at the end of the day, it's been twelve years of Wyoming focusing on this. Do you think that it will be enough to help rebound?
DF: Not by itself. I mean, I think the state's doing all that it can. One of the things that always struck me as an irony is that we did a huge taxpayer subsidy of wind energy through the production tax credit and continue to do it. And there was no similar incentive put in place to figure out either carbon capture or to facilitate the development of coal technologies on a broader scale that might produce less CO2. I guess what I would say is the state's ability financially to tackle the scale that you want to see done is limited.
CM: At the beginning, did you think that it would move or develop faster beyond bench scale?
DF: I hoped. That is, Lincoln said, 'Hope springs eternal.' I saw it as the silver bullet possibility for making coal more competitive. But we just didn't, the other shoe didn't drop, which is the creation of adequate incentives for investors to really plow money into it.
CM: Well, it's a really interesting story. I'm enjoying digging into this.
DF: It is fascinating, but the frustrating part of it is that so much of it is beyond Wyoming's control. From my point of view, what Wyoming needed to do was everything we could, but as Clint Eastwood would say, man's got to know his limitations. And what we could do is get prepared and hopeful that something along these lines would work. But at the end of the day, it was larger forces that were going to determine its outcome.
Listen now to Carbon Valley, a narrative podcast following Wyoming state leaders commitment to carbon capture along with one effort it's pursuing to save coal.