Clock Ticking on Technology to Help Coal Industry

As the coal industry struggles, officials say technology to put carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants to widespread use could be as little as 10 years away.

The Belle Ayr Mine near Gillette, Wyo., Jan. 21, 2016.
The Belle Ayr Mine near Gillette, Wyo., Jan. 21, 2016.
AP Photo/Mead Gruver, File

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Touring Wyoming at a crucial time for the top coal-mining state, the U.S. official who oversees government research into fossil fuels said Thursday it's not too late for new technology to help the coal industry.

"The Wyoming coal industry is going through a restructuring," U.S. Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg said. "After that restructuring, we will still be producing and utilizing coal from Wyoming."

Technology to put carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants to widespread, economical use is on track to hit the market within 10 to 25 years, Winberg said.

The clock is ticking. Winberg's visit to Wyoming coincides with more uncertainty about coal's future than ever before.

Financial troubles have shut down two huge open-pit mines in the Powder River Basin. About 700 people at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines were furloughed when the mines' owner, Milton, West Virginia-based Blackjewel LLC, filed for bankruptcy July 1.

Federal officials are considering whether to approve a purchase deal that could allow the mines to reopen. The decision hinges on federal royalties overseen by the Department of the Interior, not Winberg's agency, the Department of Energy.

Blackjewel's bankruptcy is one of two in the basin this year and six since 2015 as coal-fired power plummets from about half of all U.S. electricity generation a decade ago to less than 30 percent now.

Winberg's trip focused on fossil fuel technologies, including techniques to keep the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants. He oversees the Energy Department's coal, oil and natural gas research and development program and the Office of Petroleum Reserves, which runs oil and gasoline reserves the U.S. can use during severe supply interruptions.

On Wednesday, Winberg visited the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, a carbon-capture test facility at a coal-fired power plant near Gillette. In 2014, Wyoming contributed $15 million toward the $21 million cost of the center, which opened in 2018.

Winberg on Thursday toured St. Louis-based Peabody Energy's North Antelope Rochelle mine, one of the world's largest coal mines, and met with Gov. Mark Gordon.

Carbon-capture technology could eventually follow a path to success like wind power, which people doubted would be viable decades ago, Gordon said at a news conference with Winberg.

"Market conditions can change. I haven't written off coal by any means," Gordon said.

Winberg planned to tour a fossil-fuel research center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie on Friday.

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