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Wyoming traditionally has more coal production than West Virginia. The states are generally one and two nationally. But like the Mountain State, coal production in “Big Wyoming” has been on the decline for more than a decade. Even so, state leaders there are pinning their hopes on carbon capture technology.
Wyoming Public Media reporter Cooper McKim produced a nine-part podcast about the efforts in Wyoming. He spoke with Eric Douglas about what he learned.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me the basis for the podcast to begin with.
McKim: Coal production here has pretty much been on the decline since 2008. And job growth has gone with it. There have been several bankruptcies and the economy here relies on it for a majority of its revenue. Schools rely on it. It’s a little different than West Virginia, in that we get so many perks, basically from the minerals industry, it’s paid for so much, made the quality of life so good. And with that in mind, the primary effort has been keeping it going.
In 2008 there was this idea. A legislator from Gillette, our main coal capital, where all the mining is really happening, thought that carbon emissions, that carbon dioxide was the problem, but that if we could take care of that, maybe coal plants would stop going offline and coal demand would maintain. It didn’t really take off, because that recognizes climate change.
I wanted to take that idea, and just really explore how the idea of carbon capture took hold, because there’s this parallel of climate technology and keeping fossil fuels going. They seem like they’re going against each other, but they’re really not.
Douglas: It sounds like there was actually a program set up to encourage carbon capture projects. Was that funded by the state itself? Or where did that come from?
McKim: So there have been a bunch of different investments into carbon capture. And the main one was the integrated test center, which was basically a facility set up next to a coal plant here. And then they started a competition to be the first patent. The basis for the podcast was saying, let’s get a bunch of international companies to come to Wyoming and show that we can do this, to show that this is possible.
The investment was really into this facility. It was, I think, around $15 million. But there was also money from several utilities that went into it. And it was going to reward whoever produced the best technology. Carbon capture itself is trillions of dollars away from commercial viability.
Douglas: But it wasn’t just capturing the carbon emissions, it was trying to develop a system to capture the carbon emissions and then use the carbon as a byproduct as well. So you were trying to cut down on emissions, but also find a use for the material.
McKim: Yeah, so Gov. Matt Mead, the governor before our current one, had the idea that carbon capture and sequestration is great, but you’re just putting it underground. What are you doing with it? These things are expensive, so offsetting the cost by creating a different profit from another resource that it’s producing. Carbon capture utilization is sort of a sub industry of carbon capture. And that’s not trillions, but probably billions away from commercial viability. The only areas that it’s really working in right now is producing concrete from it and some are trying to produce sort of a renewable gas.
Douglas: So what did you find? What was the final result?
McKim: So what I found is that carbon capture is very different from how carbon capture helps coal. This industry itself could do very well and potentially affect net zero emissions. But the timeline for that is just different from the timeline for coal demand. That’s already been going down really fast. In Appalachia, it happened even sooner than it is here.
The reality is that things are moving really, really fast. And carbon capture is moving really, really slow. And so what this sort of exemplified is, we may not have enough time, and other people in the state want to look elsewhere to economically diversify in a way that is safer, is potentially a little bit broader, provides near term solutions, because it’s not providing jobs right now. Hundreds of people have lost their jobs in coal bankruptcies in the past few years. And there aren’t jobs being replaced by carbon capture yet. So the timelines are just off.
Douglas: What was your big takeaway at the end of the podcast?
McKim: Economic diversification can’t really be replaced by one industry. Whether or not you keep something going, it’s going to have to be larger than one industry. What I found is that there are other people who want to not just keep coal demand going, but diversify a little bit beyond that. And that’s not to say there aren’t efforts but the primary effort is to transform the city into a Silicon Valley for carbon products, whether that’s carbon dioxide or coal directly itself. And I think that’s going to be the primary effort and what I think I sort of found in the podcast is.
Douglas: What did you learn during the podcast that we haven’t touched on?
McKim: The podcast is actually very humorous. It follows a competition that involves an underdog doing carbon capture. We sort of build a friendship throughout the show. It talks about the grief of losing coal and coal plants. I lost my dad while reporting the story. And so I talked about that. There’s a lot of sentimentality and humor, and it tries to sort of get at this in a way that is not boring. So hopefully, it’s an interesting story. And I think there are a lot of parallels with West Virginia. So I hope that some of your audience might find it compelling.
The podcast Carbon Valley looks at carbon sequestration and alternative uses for carbon.