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We Are Not Alone

This article was posted by the Casper Star Tribune on September 17.

This past week I was invited to a conference in China on the future of the coal industry. How, I wondered, would the experience of other states represented at the conference square with the experience of a state that had just seen a decline in coal production in the past six months of over 60 million tons, and that proclaimed its intention to lead the way into a low-carbon future?

That state was not Wyoming, but Shanxi, our host at the conference, and China’s top coal-producing province. Coal production in Shanxi, like coal production in Wyoming, is in decline – down from 990 million tons last year to 900 million tons at the end of the first six months. But it’s not just the numbers that government officials in the province are worried about. They are concerned about the long-term implications of coal production and consumption for the environment and health of their people.

In response to these concerns, Shanxi has launched an all-out assault upon carbon emissions from coal. Their approach features four strategies, including energy savings and waste utilization, structural reform of mining and other industries, the promotion of low-carbon industries (e.g., electric vehicles), and of course scientific and technological innovation.

Key to the latter strategy is Shanxi’s plan to develop a new “Innovation City” within the capital city of Taiyuan. The Government envisions the Innovation City as bringing together a critical mass of technologies to propel the province over the threshold of a clean energy future. These technologies include carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), aimed at building on Shanxi’s existing strengths in carbon capture to convert the captured carbon into useful end-products.

This fits in with its overall strategy of “comprehensive resource utilization,” encouraging the use of waste for other purposes. Methane needing to be drained from coal mines to prevent explosions in mines, for example, can be used as a source of natural gas, instead of being vented into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

West Virginia, the United States’ No. 2 coal-producing state, is also challenged in its adaptation to these new realities, as we heard from the special representative of its governor. In just one year, coal production has dropped from 150 million to 75 million tons. Efforts to compensate with increased coal-bed methane (CBCM) production have been hampered by the increasing depth of wells needed to access the resource and lack of an adequate pipeline and transportation infrastructure.

How does Wyoming stack up against these examples? Clearly, the new Integrated Test Center in Gillette is a step in the right direction. Wyoming needs to demonstrate its commitment to the “U” in CCUS – utilization of carbon dioxide as an end-product or products. Wyoming also has enormous wind power potential which can, and has been, brought on line to generate electricity for our state and beyond.

But plans for the installation and transmission of new wind capacity are embroiled in negotiations over taxes with the state legislature. And Wyoming’s CCUS capabilities do not yet begin to approach the scale and level of sophistication of those of Shanxi.

Where Wyoming may have an additional opportunity, however, is in engaging with Shanxi. Wyoming offers Shanxi a gateway to investment in clean energy technologies. Deployment in Wyoming of energy technologies developed in Shanxi offers win-win opportunities for both Wyoming and Shanxi. For Shanxi, it offers the opportunity to showcase its technologies to the world. For Wyoming, it offers the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the sustainable use of its resources. These initiatives could add thousands of new clean energy jobs, propelling the state beyond its dependence on coal and helping to create a new basis for economic sustainability.

We are not alone. Other states and provinces are going through the same painful transition as we are. We can learn from their example and in some cases, we can even form an international partnership with matching strengths. When that happens, everyone wins, including the planet.

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