Wyoming legislators and Chinese provincial leaders met to discuss coal over the last two weeks, but their goal was to exchange ideas on its use rather than to arrange trade agreements.
China and Wyoming trade very little coal, if any, but both seek to exploit coal to its fullest extent. One method for doing so is to break coal into its components and byproducts, through a process called coal gasification. This allows coal to generate power along with other products, at the same time capitalizing upon coal more effectively and reducing its release of pollutants into the atmosphere.
The trip was arranged so government leaders from Wyoming and several Chinese provinces could compare notes on their progress toward perfecting these techniques.
“What we were looking at in China were ways of using coal and turning it into all kinds of different products,” Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs board member Mark Newcomb said.
Representatives from the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs set up the trip and traveled to three Chinese provinces June 6 through June 17 with four state legislators.
The Center for Global Affairs brought its president, David Wendt, along with Newcomb and director of communications Olivia Meigs. Wyoming’s Minority Leader Mary Throne, Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau, Majority Whip Tim Stubson and House Rep. John Freeman were also part of the group.
One of the more significant products of coal is carbon dioxide — the pollutant that results from burning coal, gasoline and other hydrocarbons, Newcomb said. Governments of both China and the United States are seeking to pull this product from coal to use for other purposes. One such use in common practice among Chinese and American oil producers is to employ carbon dioxide to recover other fuels from the ground.
Capturing CO2 from coal
“In Wyoming, carbon dioxide is a commodity that oil producers can use for tertiary oil recovery,” Newcomb said.
An economist with a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming, Newcomb wrote his graduate thesis on the use of carbon dioxide for what is known as tertiary, or enhanced, oil recovery.
Oil wells typically release about 45 percent of their contents through primary and secondary recovery techniques, and enhanced oil recovery aims to pull out the remaining store, he wrote in the thesis. Primary production methods drive oil to the surface using the well’s natural pressure, and through secondary production oil is driven out of the well by pressured water or gas.
Using enhanced oil recovery methods, oil producers inject carbon dioxide into depleted oil wells, chase it with water and pull out upwards of 33 percent more oil than primary and secondary recovery methods make available. These qualities make carbon dioxide a valuable commodity for oil producers, Newcomb said.
But while modern coal-fired power plants generate enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, recovering it from a plant’s waste emissions takes far too much energy and money to be worthwhile, Newcomb said.
Were the Jim Bridger coal plant in Rock Springs to be retrofitted to recover its carbon dioxide emissions, Newcomb said, recovery would consume around a third of the energy the plant produces.
“So,” Newcomb said, “it’s less costly ... to take the coal, and in a two-step process prepare the coal in such a way that you capture the carbon dioxide first and then get it ready to turn into essentially methanol.”
Through coal gasification, the process that turns coal into methanol, producers can also generate gasoline, diesel, plastics and other products, while still creating usable carbon dioxide, Newcomb said.
“It’s a lot easier to capture carbon dioxide in that process than as flue gas,” he said.
Nevertheless, the United States is devoting $160 million to building a new coal plant that will separate out carbon dioxide from other waste gases, Newcomb said. The Chinese, he said, “are spending on the order of billions to research this.”
Wyoming legislators support these efforts — separating coal into liquid fuels, recovering its waste products and turning them into commodities — because it makes financial sense, Newcomb said.
“Wyoming’s starting to move on the idea that they need to innovate new ways of using coal,” he said.
The more diverse coal’s potential uses, the more durable its future as a commodity, Newcomb said. Should those other uses help reduce the state’s or the country’s carbon footprint at the same time, so much the better.
Leaders in China hope to use techniques such as these to reduce the country’s level of pollution, Wendt said. But officials there hope also to more fully use coal’s energy potential than is realized through burning it to boil water and turn steam turbines. The Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs arranged the trip to show lawmakers that these objectives might coincide with some of Wyoming’s.
“Our principal objective ... was to expose them to some of the aggressive efforts China is taking to reduce carbon emissions from coal combustion and to increase their energy efficiency,” Wendt said.
The Chinese refer to this as “comprehensive resource utilization,” Wendt said. The term refers to the employment of a resource so efficiently that all its components and byproducts get used. Chinese are even researching ways to put coal ash from the gasification process to use, Newcomb said. Through this approach, Wendt said, what are currently wasted in the form of pollutants become resources in themselves.
Among the motivations for China’s intention to use resources so completely, Wendt said, are competitiveness and security.
“There’s very clearly a competitiveness dimension,” he said. “They want to be the global leader in these technologies so they can be the low-cost provider.”
By more completely exploiting its resources, China also seeks to bolster its national security, Wendt said.
“More so than us ... China is increasingly dependent on foreign sources of energy,” he said.
“They’re determined to squeeze every last bit of value” from those sources, Wendt said.
The amount of coal China imports from the United States is very small compared with what it uses, Wendt said. The country’s primary source of coal is Australia, which provides 40 million tons every year. By contrast, the United States may export up to a million tons of coal to China, but likely no more than that, he said.
Chinese are on forefront
President Obama’s recent efforts to curtail carbon dioxide emissions from American power plants have been derided as ineffectual, critics have said, because increasing Chinese emissions overshadow reductions at home.
The massive infrastructure Wyoming’s legislators witnessed on their trip to China show this belief to be a myth, Wendt said.
“It’s a myth that there’s no point in the U.S. taking action on these issues because the Chinese are not doing their part,” he said. “The last thing we should be saying on this side of the Pacific is that they’re sitting on their hands.
“A central purpose of this 10-day mission to China was to help dispel that myth and bring home concrete evidence with our legislators that the Chinese are very much leaning forward in their saddles,” Wendt said. “If anything, we need to take a lead from their book and get more aggressive on those issues,” he said.
Lubnau has shown himself receptive to this idea, Wendt said.
“The speaker’s been on board from the get-go,” he said. “He’s always been interested in these policies.”
Lubnau has “exerted tremendous leadership” in the state Legislature by supporting technologies such as carbon sequestration, Wendt said.
“This was pushing on an open door,” he said.
Lubnau’s interest in using coal to create other products comes from a position similar to that of the Chinese, Wendt said. Wyoming has staked the foundations of its own economic security in its coal mines, Wendt said. And while the United States currently gets 40 percent of its energy from coal combustion, Newcomb said, that number is likely to decrease as stronger environmental protections are put in place.
This is why it behooves Wyoming no less than China to pull all the value possible out of its coal by developing new ways of using it, Wendt said.
The governor has recently expressed a similar sentiment.
Announcing the development of a $15 million test center to derive carbon dioxide from coal emissions for commercial use, Gov. Matt Mead last week said such efforts are imperative for the state.
“Wyoming has an abundance of coal, and we must find productive ways to put coal and its byproducts to work,” Mead said in a statement June 19. “We are showing leadership in supporting this kind of advanced research.”
Such attitudes are encouraging in light of the fact that Wyoming and China will continue to seek ways to further expand their use of coal, Wendt said.
“There’s absolutely no question the Chinese will not only continue to use coal, but to use massive amounts of coal,” he said. Over the next six years, China plans to add up to 600,000 megawatts worth of coal-fired power plants, a sum twice as much as the entire coal-fired power production presently existing in the United States.
The only question is what form coal takes before it is used as an energy source and how much is converted to other forms before its use, Wendt said.
Forms such as methanol, and even gasoline or diesel — all of which can be created from coal — burn cleaner than coal in its raw form, he said.
How China chooses to use its coal will be a matter of local concern, Wendt said.
As many as 12 of the 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide that humans put into the atmosphere annually comes from coal-fired plants, he said. “Anything we can do to reduce that worldwide impact of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants ... can really help to address climate change impacts right here in Jackson Hole.”