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Wyoming coal in the crosshairs

June 25, 2012 in Events, Features, News, Opinion

Two unrelated circumstances that occurred 20 years ago gave Wyoming coal a huge boost in its development. They were government regulations and cheap energy. Federal laws favored Wyoming’s low-sulphur coal over the dirtier eastern coal and our coal was very cheap. This made it attractive to utilities.

My, have times changed.

Today, the same two circumstances are threatening Wyoming coal. New governmental regulations are punishing coal-fired power plant development. And coal has a new competitor — natural gas, which is now incredibly cheap.

I’m trying to simplify a pretty big and pretty complicated worldwide situation on energy here. Other factors in coal’s favor include the continued dissatisfaction with nuclear and the possibility of shipping our coal overseas.

As a distraction, we read where some knuckleheads are planning to come to Wyoming to harass our coal miners. Called High Country Rising Tide, they intend to put themselves into “arrestable” situations in confronting miners and law enforcement officials in the Gillette area.

Not sure how physically fit these folks are, but most of our coal miners are pretty tough guys and gals. Not sure I would want to put myself into an “arrestable situation” confrontation with any of them. Plus they drive big pickup trucks and out here in the frontier, they may even be packing heat.

In the big picture, the High Country Rising Tide outfit is like a fly crawling up an elephant’s tail with love on his mind. But I digress.

Obviously, my choice for using more coal is to build power plants here in Wyoming. And we should be considering building some natural gas-powered ones, too. Not sure why this discussion is always off the table in our state. Where’s the leadership? It’s much easier to close a coal mine than shut down a power plant.

Some of that leadership, Gov. Matt Mead and State Rep. Tom Lubnau, were in China last week co-hosting a world coal conference. That was an important step for exporting coal to China, we would think.

The biggest threat to the coal exporting opportunity involves environmentalists in the northwest. They’ll have the biggest effect on the future of Wyoming coal being exported.

Some 140 million tons of coal per year would be exported to China and other Asian countries if it could only get to the ports safely. The ports are under construction and under protest by folks in Oregon and Washington who hate smelly coal. And they really hate the idea of mile-and-a-half-long trains rolling through their countrysides night and day on a never-ending basis.

It’s a nightmare scenario to a place that has weaned itself off coal. The last coal-fired plant in Oregon is scheduled to be shut down in 2020. The city of Bellingham, Wash., for example, has hundreds of homes with lawn signs in their yards proclaiming “NO COAL!”

They actually have some legitimate complaints in some areas and people of good will are trying to work out some compromises.

But it’ll be a tough sell, especially to the folks who really are trying to think globally. They worry that by providing cheap Wyoming coal to Asia, it will encourage those countries to keep building plants and keep polluting the atmosphere, which affects everyone worldwide.

Two of the biggest coal companies in the country, Peabody Coal and Ambre Energy, are busy working on getting the ports built to accommodate those long trainloads of Cowboy State product, according to an article in Time magazine.

This really is the future of Wyoming coal. Coal usage in the U.S. is on the decline but is on the upsurge in China and India, for example.

China’s coal consumption is expected to go up 50 percent by 2035. Right now, they’re relying on their own mines plus coal imported from Indonesia and Australia. But their thirst is exceeding their capacity. Wyoming’s coal at a cheap price is pretty enticing to them.

Getting coal from Wyoming to China involves two pretty darned long hauls. First involves riding the rails for 1,000 miles to a port in Oregon or Washington. Second is a 4,000-mile trip across the Pacific in a giant tanker-like barge.

Right in the middle of that trip is a bunch of unhappy folks who see themselves deriving no benefit at all from this transaction, and worse, in their eyes, seeing the world’s climate worsening because of it.

This is going to be an interesting story. Stay tuned.

(Visit Bill Sniffin at www.billsniffin.com.)

Copyright 2012 CasperJournal.com.

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