Though the coal industry is older than the state of Wyoming itself, ongoing efforts may keep the controversial energy resource in play, despite reports that the outlook is grim.

Wyoming mines produced 316.6 million tons of coal in 2017, most of that from the Powder River Basin, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. The state also produces about 40 percent of all coal in the nation.

Also as of 2017, Wyoming was home to 16 mines that produced more coal than all the coal mines combined in the other six top-producing states, according to the Wyoming State Geological Survey. Between 1865 and Jan. 1, 2018, more than 11.3 billion short tons of coal had been mined in Wyoming, most of it in the last 20 years.

The highest coal production year for Wyoming was 2008, with 466.3 million tons mined.

Wyoming coal production, though, decreased 22 percent from an estimated $4.37 billion in 2015 to $2.77 billion in 2016, based on Energy Information Administration average spot coal pricing, according to the WSGS.

This was due to a significant drop in production and price in 2016. The industry rebounded throughout 2017, with an increase in coal production and price, rising from a low of $9.20 per ton in December 2016 to an average of $12.23 per ton in December 2017.

As of March 15, the average weekly coal commodity spot price for Powder River Basin coal was $12.35 per short ton, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The vast majority of Wyoming coal is used as steam coal for the generation of electricity and is shipped all over the country.

According to a March 2019 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in the U.S. electricity-generation markets, no region stands at greater economic risk than the coal-rich Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

“The PRB, as the basin is known for short, for years has produced roughly 40 percent of the coal used in power generation nationally, and the vast majority of the region’s coal has gone into that sector,” the report states. “Demand for PRB coal has been driven historically by federal coal-lease policy, expanding energy markets, and the fact that it can be inexpensively strip-mined – as opposed to extracted from underground seams – and is relatively low in sulfur and ash content.”

But today, the region is losing its customer base as utilities across the U.S. embrace a wave of technology disruptions that have brought lower-cost generation from natural gas and renewables, especially wind and solar, creating competition that is driving coal-fired power plants out of business, according to the EEFA.

“The U.S. market for thermal coal – that is, coal used for electricity generation – is in long-term structural decline, a trend that spells erosion in demand for PRB coal,” the report states.

However, two unique technologies, carbon sequestration and coal-to-carbon products, may have a future in Wyoming.

Coal to carbon

In Sheridan County, Ramaco Carbon has for years been working on its planned research lab campus and light manufacturing facility, which it calls its iCam and iPark projects. The iPark center will be a next generation mine-mouth “coal-to-products” manufacturing facility, with what the company says will be zero net emissions.

Located next to the Brook Mine, operations at the iPark will utilize coal from the mine to create high-value carbon products, including carbon fiber, graphene, graphite, carbon nano tubes, carbon dots, carbon-based resins, carbon-based building products, medical products and activated carbon.

The iCam (Carbon Advanced Materials) center will be designed to host research professionals from national laboratories, universities, private research groups and manufacturing organizations in both laboratory, pilot-plant and permanent operating facilities.

“We believe in a new future for coal, where its use for higher-value products makes it, indeed, too valuable to burn,” CEO Randall Atkins said.

Instead, the carbon from coal can be used as a building block for creating products used for infrastructure, building products and other key industries.

“There is also a coming renaissance in both advanced materials and advanced manufacturing, such as with 3D printing,” Atkins said. “We envision that important research and advanced manufacturing will be done here in Sheridan County, with the world’s only fully integrated carbon resource, research, development and production facility.”

Carbon sequestration

As carbon-capture technologies become more accessible, both the State of Wyoming and the federal government hope to make the process an economically feasible option in Wyoming’s energy sector.

Carbon capture, use and storage technologies may capture more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Captured carbon dioxide can be put to productive use in enhanced oil recovery and the manufacture of fuels, building materials and more, or be stored in underground geologic formations. Almost two dozen commercial-scale carbon capture projects are operating around the world, with 22 more in development.

Further, carbon capture can achieve 14 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050, and is viewed as the only practical way to achieve deep decarbonization in the industrial sector, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

This is important to the coal industry because capture technologies allow the separation of CO2 from gases produced in electricity generation and industrial processes often associated with coal-fired power plants.

In fact, Rocky Mountain Power/PacifiCorp, which runs the Dave Johnston Plant near Glenrock, issued a formal request for expressions of interest in carbon capture proposals for the plant in September of 2018, according to David Eskelsen of Rocky Mountain Power.

The request for expressions of interest in carbon capture proposals sought “parties that can demonstrate timely and viable technical, commercial and financially backstopped proposals to explore the feasibility of the capture of carbon dioxide from the Dave Johnston coal-fueled power plant with the potential for use in enhanced oil recovery in northeast Wyoming,” according to Eskelsen.

It’s too early to know if the proposals will lead to projects, particularly with regard to the Dave Johnston Plant, but it may be a start.

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