CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Wyoming’s governor is promoting a Trump administration study that says capturing carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants would be an economical way to curtail the pollution — findings questioned by a utility that owns the plants and wants to shift away from the fossil fuel in favor of wind and solar energy.
Gov. Mark Gordon's endorsement of the study Thursday is the latest effort by the top coal-mining state to prop up the industry, which President Donald Trump has promised to rescue since its U.S. output has fallen by about one-third over the past decade.
In recent years, Wyoming contributed $15 million to test carbon capture at a coal-fired power plant, and Gordon signed a bill in March establishing a $1 million program to promote coal despite utilities nationwide switching to cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy to combat climate change.
Supporters say carbon capture would save coal by pumping carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas emitted by power plants — underground instead of into the atmosphere. To date, carbon capture has been implemented at only one commercially operating coal-fired power plant in the U.S., the Petra Nova facility outside Houston that's been idle since May.
“I know it’s often easy to take shots at carbon capture and say it’s uneconomic. But if you really talk about what we need to do to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, to actually reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this is the way you do it,” said Gordon, a Republican who asked the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct the carbon-capture study in 2019.
The study that Clairsville, Ohio-based Leonardo Technologies Inc., the University of Wyoming and others did for the government examined potential carbon-capture economics at four Wyoming coal-fired power plants owned by Portland, Oregon-based PacifiCorp.
The study released last week says adding carbon capture at the four plants would reduce carbon dioxide emissions 37%, cost electricity customers 10% less and produce up to five times more jobs compared with PacifiCorp's plans to shift to clean energy.
“We have felt for a long time that Wyoming burning coal is not the issue, it is the release of CO2 that we should focus on,” Gordon said at a news conference.
PacifiCorp took issue with the study, saying it ignored “everything associated with how a utility's costs flow into rates” and made a range of assumptions, including substantially lower costs than those at Petra Nova.
“As PacifiCorp continues to examine the study’s assumptions and calculations to properly evaluate its conclusions, we’re finding many of those conclusions are simply wrong,” David Eskelsen, a spokesman for PacifiCorp subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power, said in the statement.
The utility has 1.7 million customers in California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. It proposes reducing coal-fired generation by two-thirds by 2030 while getting more power from wind and solar energy projects.
PacifiCorp’s plans include speeding up the retirement of coal-fired generators at two plants in Wyoming, prompting regulators there to investigate whether that best serves customers’ interests.
Gordon spokesman Mike Pearlman said it wasn't surprising PacifiCorp would question the report.
“The data and assumptions are all there to analyze,” Pearlman said by email.
University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources executive director Holly Krutka said she didn’t have time Thursday to address PacifiCorp’s objections. Leonardo Technologies President and CEO Robert Gentile didn't return a phone message seeking comment.
Gentile's record includes time as Department of Energy assistant secretary for fossil energy, director of the federal Office of Surface Mining and as a coal industry executive. In 2017, Gentile received a lifetime achievement award from the Washington Coal Club, a coal industry booster group whose recent vice presidents include Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Sierra Club also took issue with the study, saying Wyoming coal power is becoming more expensive compared with wind and solar and that the analysis didn't account for rising operating costs at aging power plants.
“There is no scenario where spending billions of dollars to retrofit old coal plants with experimental carbon capture technology is going to make the power they produce cheaper or more competitive in a free market,” Sierra Club Wyoming director Connie Wilbert said in a statement.
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