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for people who care about the West

Wyoming hits a green roadblock


Will Wyoming’s vast coal mines be forced to cut back or close down during our lifetimes?

When the current energy boom started in the fall of 2002-2003, just five short years ago, several commentators predicted that the state’s energy-based prosperity would stretch out for decades. I was certain of this, too.

The prediction was based on two facts: First was Wyoming’s 250-year supply of low-sulphur coal, making it North America’s Saudi Arabia of coal. Second was the vast reserves of natural gas that continue to be discovered in the state, plus projections of more than 100,000 coalbed methane natural gas wells that will be developed in the next decade.

In the meantime, a bogeyman named Global Warming has entered the nation’s consciousness, and this is putting a crimp into some of these developments -- especially coal. Ten years ago, who could have imagined that nuclear energy would be viewed as “clean” and coal as “dirty?”

These days, there are many examples of companies turning away from coal. Rocky Mountain Power, the main electricity supplier to Wyoming and many western states, recently snuffed plans for a huge new coal-fired expansion at its Rock Springs, Wyo., Jim Bridger plant. It also curtailed plans for a clean coal-to-gas project that was on the drawing board.

Another example of this change in public attitude was the cancellation of a major array of coal-fired plants in Texas that would have used 7 percent of Wyoming’s coal. The developers are switching to nuclear.

Then there were the news reports about a coal-fired plant scheduled for Mesquite, Nev. It has fired up next-door Utah residents who are marshalling forces to kill it. Other coal-fired plants on the drawing boards in Wyoming are now becoming more of a long shot, as financing and long-term power contracts are being renegotiated.

You can also watch as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leads California lawmakers into a program where they refuse to buy energy that is produced in a way that causes global warming -- i.e. coal-fired plants.

Meanwhile, however, the Union Pacific Railroad sets new records for the amount of coal it transports out of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and into the Midwest, the south and the east. That coal is fueling huge coal-fired plants that provide over half of the electricity to this country.

The size of these trains leaves an indelible impression. I recently drove home through the Lusk, Wyo., area, and it was amazing to see how long these heavily loaded trainloads of coal can snake. They stretch out for more than mile and almost disappear on the horizon. It seems to me that the coal train symbolizes a global battle over energy production. The battle involves environmental concerns, security and public relations, and it involves the folks concerned about global warming and the folks who support domestically produced energy at any cost. At the same time our thirst for more electricity might easily outstrip the supply.

Perhaps the biggest victims in this are the big utility companies. I know it is hard to feel sorry for them, but perhaps in this case they deserve a tear or two. They operate monopolies, but as part of that advantage they cannot allow the power to go off -- ever. Yet as energy demand grows, so does the threat of brownouts or blackouts.

Utilities have invested heavily in coal-fired plants, which produce energy pretty darn cheaply, and at least in their opinion, pretty darn cleanly, too. Whatever utilities choose to do to increase their supply of energy, it will take decades to alter the mix so that greater contributions come from wind, nuclear, natural gas and less polluting coal. In the meantime, If the power goes out, they risk big fines and even the loss of their franchises.

Nonetheless, I believe that Wyoming’s energy future remains bright. The development of new, clean-coal technologies could provide more opportunity than what the coalfields are now providing. And it might be that the trend away from coal could falter once blackouts and brownouts disrupt our lives. But until that happens, the public relations advantage is definitely in the hands of the global warming folks.

Bill Sniffin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a long-time Wyoming journalist in Lander,Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].