In November 2003, a delegation of energy and economic development officials from China visited Jackson Hole to meet with John F. Turner, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, and other U.S. leaders.
They discussed emerging technologies for generating cleaner energy, even as demand was growing by leaps, and possibilities for partnerships. But at least as important was what the Chinese saw while visiting Wyoming.
“A cleaner environment,” said Olivia Meigs, communications director for the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, which worked to bring about the exchange. “They saw that when they came to Jackson Hole, saw what a clean environment looks like.”
China’s economic growth — and the growing energy demand that goes along with it — is rarely written about without mentioning the environmental toll that growth has taken. The pace of growth may have slowed, for now, but the stories of pollution, its widespread health effects and its contributions to climate change persist.
Over the past 12 years the Jackson Hole center has arranged a total of 10 more sit-downs between Chinese and Americans to talk about carbon emissions and carbon-capturing technologies, including a meeting this summer in Cheyenne between Shanxi officials and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
And just last week Meigs and David Wendt, president of the Center for Global Affairs, returned from a weeklong trip to Shanxi, China’s largest coal-producing province, for another round of discussions.
The international summit included delegates from the world’s top coal users. The U.S. counted among its group Wyoming Sen. Michael Von Flatern, chairman of the Senate Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, and Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, chairman of the state’s Energy Council. A half dozen technical experts from the University of Wyoming also attended, as did representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy.
What the Americans saw, Wendt said, was how China has taken carbon emissions seriously and in a relatively short time enacted meaningful changes.
Among the most impressive displays of China’s commitment, Wendt said, was a coal-to-liquids demonstration plan.
“What was interesting in that case,” he said, “is this demonstration facility was as large as any production facility here in the U.S.” Ultimately, he said, an actual Chinese production facility could be 10 times larger.
Ben Yamagata, executive director for the Coal Utilization Research Council, of Washington, D.C., and another member of the center’s traveling group, came away shaking his head, Wendt said.
“He said, ‘Imagine, a coal company doing a tech demonstration!’” said Wendt. “Coal companies here haven’t made that kind of investment.”
But now that representatives from the U.S. government and industry have laid eyes on what could be the future that could change, Wendt said.
That has been the purpose of the center’s efforts for the past dozen years.
“We’ve met our initial goal,” said Meigs, “which is to blow whistles in Wyoming and ask ‘Where are your coal technologies?’ … For 12 years we’ve been working on ramping up the accountability in those areas. With this particular meeting we feel we’ve met that goal.”
The centerpiece of the most recent exchange — which took Wendt and company to China on Sept. 13 through Sept. 19 — was a summit that included detailed technical discussions. Wendt presented at the event, speaking on the importance of continued cooperation between Shanxi and Wyoming and what it will take to make the partnership a “real partnership,” he said, that can effect real change in both regions.
Li Xiaopeng, the governor of Shanxi, gave the keynote address.
“He talked about what Shanxi has accomplished in just five years in terms of cleaning up coal,” Wendt said, “and what it planned to do in the next five years. He had an extensive list of initiatives centering on an innovation city that he plans to set up in the heart of his capital.”
Li and Shanxi follow China’s central government, which has made great strides on ambitious plans, including seven emissions-trading pilot projects — cap-and-trade as we call it here — launched in seven provinces. While those emissions-trading projects are still in their early stages, Wendt said, a great deal of work has gone into planning them.
“It’s hugely important to them,” Wendt said, “something they are very much leaning toward. And we need to be leaning forward on that, too.”
Shanxi is not one of the provinces with a pilot program, but, Wendt said, Gov. Li has been studying them and plans to initiate one in his own province.
Another big step, for the center, at least, is an invitation to set up a branch office in Shanxi, although exactly how it will to take advantage of the offer is up in the air, Meigs said.
“We don’t have that kind of budget,” she said of the center. “The financial demands are mind boggling.”
But, Wendt said, it sounds like an ideal opportunity for some post-doctorate fellow at a university.
“It would be the front lines for them,” he said. “If I were a post-doc in engineering … I’d salivate at the thought.”
While they feel like the trip was a success Wendt said the effort to share technology, clean up emissions and give Wyoming coal a future as a clean energy source is a work in progress.
“It’s changing slowly, but it’s changing,” he said. “It’s a drum we’ll continue to be beating.
“I think there is openness within the state to move in a different direction,” he said.
Meigs said the issue, as usual, comes down to education.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t understand that Wyoming is the largest coal-producing state in the country,” she said. “The other thing people don’t understand is that every year 37 billion tons of CO2 are pumped into the atmosphere.” Some 13 billion to 14 billion of that comes from coal combustion, she said. “When people wrap their minds around that … maybe they’ll think about it. … Once they begin to understand, that changes their minds.”