What To Expect From Wyoming Public Media's Upcoming Podcast Series, 'Carbon Valley'

Mar 12, 2021

Coming this month, Wyoming Public Media will be releasing Carbon Valley, a bi-monthly limited series following the race to develop an unlikely climate solution. Wyoming Public Radio's Naina Rao sat down with energy reporter Cooper McKim, who developed this series, on how Carbon Valley came about, and what drove the decision to create it.

Cooper McKim: So, carbon capture has always been a big topic in Wyoming, with really high expectations to sort of be the state's response to a decline in coal production. But when I came to Wyoming, my perception of this technology, which it can be a million things I learned, but at the time, my perception of it was really simple: that it was something celebrated by environmentalists, and the left as a way to mitigate climate change.

So, it sort of seemed ironic to me that, on one hand, there are folks saying, 'Hey, this is going to be amazing to limit climate change, we need it for 2050 climate goals. There's all these international reports that say so.' And on the other hand, Wyoming, lifting it up and saying, 'This is what we need to save coal.'

So, when I learned about this competition in the Carbon XPRIZE, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to cut past the rhetoric and just follow this story on the ground. And the podcast itself follows this competition, which is still underway today to just really get me on the ground as a reporter and connect with folks rather than just hearing about this in speeches. So, all of those elements led to me wanting to do this long-term project.

Naina Rao: Right, so tell us more on what this podcast is about.

CM: So, as I mentioned, the carbon XPRIZE is the main topic that it follows. So, it uses that as a lens to cover the larger issue of carbon capture. So, there's this sort of tension between carbon capture being a solution for coal country, while also being this solution held up for climate change. So, it explores that issue gets into what carbon capture really is, and also follows along with the challenges for the kind of companies that Wyoming wants to attract.

So, CCUS is called carbon capture, utilization and storage. It's not just one thing, it's not just a big vacuum that sucks carbon dioxide out of the air, perhaps that would be a little bit better for the climate than carbon capture utilization, which can be beneficial in reducing emissions, but isn't necessarily that. So, the podcast digs into all of these tensions and contradictions, while following one specific startup competing in this competition over the course of two years and checking in with them seeing what the challenges are.

For example, I learned that capital - getting funding is really one of the biggest challenges to making this technology work. But also, that it's really, really hard to get this technology off the ground, which is telling given that's what Wyoming has really hitched its wagon to, as its economic future, at least for reversing the production curve for coal.

NR: Why do you think it's so timely and important for this podcast to be released this year, in 2021?

Jason Salfi, left, and David Erickson, right, standing at the site where they have since set up their reactor.
Credit Cooper McKim/2018

CM: So pretty much since 2018, and even before that, since Wyoming began talking about carbon capture, there has been this massive shift in progress in recent years. The number of large-scale facilities is multiplied by four since 2010. The capacity for carbon capture is increased, the cost of it has gone down. So, it seems like this collaborative bipartisan thing, even though there are so many who say that this is a waste of resources. And as these concerns become bigger for coal and for the climate, I think this is sort of a perfect middle ground to discuss a potential climate solution.

NR: So, you already got me hooked! But, if you had to explain for folks like me who are a beginner or not familiar with issues regarding energy and climate, and why they should give carbon Valley a listen, what would you say?

CM: I think the first thing is just that, it's an enjoyable story first. I think there are really great characters, there's a natural tension, the main character is the former CEO of a skateboard company. There's just - it's not the regular energy folks you hear from.

And at the same time, if folks listen to Radiolab, you're not necessarily going in thinking you're interested in DNA, or whatever the topic is, you know? Or listening to a podcast about Dolly Parton. Sometimes it's an entry point to get interested in energy and the environment and climate.

And the last thing is, it's a story about Wyoming, but it's really a universal story just about a battle for the future. You know, if you've ever turned your lights on, you've probably consumed coal, even though it might not seem like it, given you're not going to the store and buying it. So, I think this story really relates to all of us.

NR: Will there be anything surprising, or is there anything surprising that will come from this podcast?

CM: So, one of my favorite things is that, over the course of two years, it really has been a unique opportunity for these tensions to play out in real-time. As radio reporters, we're used to seeing these stories kind of already wrapped up, you know? We sort of know what happens by the time we get to it. But with this, there is so much that actually unfolds and I'm responding to it real-time. You know, I'll just tease: I'm scared at one point that my main character is going to drop out of the competition.

The competition also doesn't exactly go as planned. And so, throughout the series, there's a lot of things that just happened very organically, that I think are informative about the story of carbon capture that this is following.

NR: Oh my god. I'm very curious now. Cooper McKim, Wyoming Public Radio's energy reporter and now, creator of Carbon Valley. Thanks for talking to me, Cooper.

CM: Thanks, Naina.

NR: Carbon Valley will premiere on March 16. And you can find it on carbonvalleypodcast.org.