By this time next week, a handful of Wyomingites including Gov. Matt Mead and his family will be on the other side of the world in China.
Two years after a similar conference in Laramie, the coal-rich central Chinese province of Shaanxi will host a four-day forum to discuss coal mining and regulations, talk about ways to limit and store emissions from burning coal, and examine systems to convert coal into motor fuels and other chemicals.
Those attending from Wyoming, a delegation that includes top state officials, and University of Wyoming scientists and students, say the topics are near and dear to the state’s economic heart and worth the nearly $100,000 the journey will cost the state.
“We need to develop Wyoming relationships with China as a potential consumer of our coal and our products,” said state Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, the Senate’s vice president and a forum delegate.
“The effort to collaborate and build developing clean coal technology is extremely important,” he said. “As we watch our revenues fluctuate, we simply can’t stand still.”
‘An excellent opportunity’
For those going to the forum, which was first held in Australia in 2008, it’s a chance to build relationships with people in a Chinese province which, although home to tens of millions, is similar to Wyoming in size and bounty of natural resources.
A dozen University of Wyoming students will stop in Beijing and visit with Chinese students before traveling to the Third International Advanced Coal Technologies Conference in Xi’an, the capital of the province of Shaanxi, from June 3-7. According to University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, the trip will cost the state $93,800.
“This is an excellent opportunity for our students to see, firsthand, what’s happening in the coal industry internationally,” Mark Northam, director of the UW School of Energy Resources, said in a media release.
Also attending the forum will be scientists from the United States, China and Australia and business representatives from General Electric and other firms developing coal-to-gas technology and the fields of emission reduction and storage.
Bob Kelly, executive chairman of Houston-based DKRW Advanced Fuels, will also attend the conference. DKRW is pressing forward with plans to build a coal-to-gasoline plant near Elk Mountain and has asked for county support and financial help from the state Legislature.
In an emailed response to questions, Kelly said DKRW considered the conference important and a chance to discuss the company’s plan to capture carbon emitted from its Wyoming plant and provide it for use pushing oil out of low-producing fields.
“China is a large market for clean coal technologies, and we may participate in China and also want to further develop relationships with Chinese companies,” he wrote.
Those attending from Wyoming will get a chance to view a coal-to-liquids fuel plant in Shaanxi province, as well as other industrial operations, on field trips in the days after the forum concludes.
It’s important to see “the value-added technologies and seeing that coal-to-liquids process work and trying to decide what we can do to promote that value-added technology in Wyoming,” Nicholas said.
Fear of exports
Wyoming officials and companies in the state continue to pursue new ways to use the state’s coal, such as converting coal into motor fuel, cooking coal underground to produce methane and shipping it through Pacific Coast terminals to customers in Asia.
Such export plans have drawn increasing criticism from Oregon and Washington residents, as well as environmental groups and residents along the rail routes to the Pacific Coast from the Powder River Basin coal mines in Wyoming and Montana.
Those opposed to the coal ports have grown increasingly vocal over concerns the rail shipments would spew coal dust, poison shores and water, and provide China and other customers in Asian with the means to pump even more greenhouse gases into the climate and accelerate climate change.
“As you can see, even if we ship our coal to China we need to assure our sister states we’re doing everything we can to try to get that coal to be burned in as clean a form as possible so we ease their fears related to coal shipments to China,” Nicholas said.
For Nicholas and fellow delegate and state Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, meeting with the Chinese is a way to deal with a Pacific Northwest concerned it will become a gateway to China-produced pollution.
“We’ve got lots of objections to shipping the coal from Washington and Oregon, and if we can jointly develop strategies to alleviate the concerns from folks in Washington and Oregon, we should explore those possibilities,” Lubnau said. “We need to be sensitive to those concerns and federal policy issues.”
‘Not provincial issues’
Producers mined 438.5 million tons of coal in the state last year, much of it sent by rail to utilities around the U.S., which burn the coal to generate electricity. But with ever-stricter and pending federal regulations on coal-fire power plants to limit pollution and stronger competition from cheap natural gas, Wyoming’s coal industry has slowed operations this year.
It’s the latest event spurring the state and coal producers to ask: What should we do to make sure Wyoming’s coal industry keeps working?
That question has caused many to look west, across the Pacific to China and Asian’s other growing economies in need of more coal.
“From my point of view our industry needs it, they need our support,” Nicholas said. “And the trip is in a large part to provide our support.”
Wyoming has found itself something of a partner in China, a huge producer and consumer of coal. The rapidly expanding Chinese economy has demanded ever-growing supplies of electricity — power produced mostly by coal-fired power plants whose emissions add to the country’s serious pollution problems.
As the Chinese work to keep the lights on, and find themselves needing coal supplies from abroad, they’re also pushing hard to develop renewable energy resources such as wind and solar, and to develop coal emissions control technology.
That’s a quest Wyoming understands.
The state has pushed forward with work on ways to capture and store carbon dioxide, which is produced from burning coal, including a now-throttled-back effort to test and develop a prime storage location deep underground in southwest Wyoming. The state Legislature has also continued funding a task force that provides matching funds for research and development of new ways to use coal and technology that would cut emissions from coal.
Wyoming, which exports many types of energy, is a small piece of a global energy market, said Lynne Boomgaarden, a forum delegate and a Cheyenne-based attorney who works for many energy firms active in the state.
“When you’re involved in the energy field in Wyoming, it just becomes so clearly and quickly apparent we are working with global markets and international companies,” she said. “It’s just patently apparent: These are not provincial issues, and Wyoming cannot afford to take that approach or attitude.”
Reach Jeremy Fugleberg at 307-266-0623 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/boom and follow him on Twitter: @jerenergy.