“The coal industry is coming to an end”: Wyoming faces dependence on fossil fuels

In the bowels of the prairie, the excavators devour the flat surface and, on the ramp, the trucks bring up the ore: 3.8 million tonnes of coal are extracted each year from the giant pit opened in 1977 on the deposit which is used to supply a power station.

The Wyodak Resources site, operated by Black Hills Corp, a company based in Rapid City, South Dakota, is the oldest operating surface coal mine in the United States. In the heart of the Powder River basin in northeastern Wyoming, twelve surface mines produce 40% of the coal in the United States, and power more than 200 power plants in 39 states of the union.

the coal made the prosperity of Gillette, a city of 33,403 inhabitants, nicknamed “Energy Capital of the Nation”. In the 1970s, the dusty ranching town grew into a thriving city with a symphony orchestra, restaurants and cobbled streets. A boom triggered by the Clean Air Act of 1970 which created a market for low-sulphur coal from Wyoming. And by the priority given to coal production, when the Arab oil embargo of 1973 revealed American dependence on imported fuels.

Temporary improvement

For the past two years, the sector has benefited from the rebound generated by demand for fossil fuels that has started to rise again. Everyone knows, however, that this improvement will be temporary. Wyodak Resources, with its 213 million tonnes of reserves and 70 employees, is expected to close in 2039. “The coal industry is coming to an end”, mutters Doug, a retired miner sitting over a beer at Lula Belle’s Café, near the train tracks.

The authorities are preparing for it. “Re-imagining carbon” in ” Carbon Valley “, a kind of “Silicon Valley” of coal, has become their watchword. Carbon capture, storage and utilization (CCUS) technologies are presented as the miracle solution that will guarantee a future for fossil fuels, as well as the development from coal of products such as asphalt, graphene, graphite or carbon fiber. With support from the State of Wyoming, Campbell County and the City of Gillette, together with the University of Wyoming, are home to a series of research and development projects, centered on these technologies. “We want to make coal carbon neutral », explains Jim Ford, a consultant involved in the creation of the Wyoming Innovation Center, a facility intended to accelerate applied research on these industrial products.

Nearby, a fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, a space open to researchers and start-ups to test CCUS technologies using CO2 from the exhaust from the nearby Dry coal-fired power plant. Fork. “This is the climate solution that conservationists and industry leaders have been waiting for,” argues Glen Murrell, executive director of the Wyoming Energy Authority, in the daily Casper Star Tribune. “No other technology at our disposal can reduce emissions from critical and high-emitting industries on such a scale and at such a rate. »

Coal-fired power plants provide 70% of electricity

About 70% of the electricity consumed in the state of Wyoming comes from coal-fired power plants. Governor Mark Gordon and state legislators intend to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants without reducing this contribution. Unlike most other states, Wyoming’s 2020 legislation does not require power producers to source a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables. In contrast, coal-fired power plants must equip their facilities with CO2 capture technology, in the hope of producing 80% of electricity without CO2 emissions.

A challenge, because carbon capture has not yet demonstrated its technical and economic feasibility. “This technology requires water, a scarce commodity in northeast Wyoming,” says Shannon Anderson, legal counsel for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. The use of capture would lead to a significant increase in electricity prices for users and a reduction in production, without the federal tax credits provided for in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) being sufficient to change the situation.

Free market and climate crisis

Seen from Cheyenne, the state capital, the federal government is primarily responsible for the energy crisis. “Federal regulations do not allow the free market to find solutions to the climate crisis”, asserts Travis Deti, director of the Wyoming Mining Association, extolling the merits of a diversified energy landscape, including fossil and renewable energies. We are a land of unparalleled mineral resources and we can develop them responsibly. »

In the west of the state, the Power Company of Wyoming is developing a wind farm with 600 turbines on 600 hectares and TerraPower, a company created by Bill Gates, will build a sodium-cooled nuclear reactor. “Taxes and royalties from fossil fuel production provide about half of Wyoming’s state revenue,” points out Jeffrey A. Lockwood, professor at the University of Wyoming. “Politicians have failed to reduce this dependency and are desperate to maintain a declining extractive industry. Diversifying the economy will take time. Eventually, the creation of an income tax could become unavoidable. » A revolution in this state with a libertarian tradition.


The American climate plan, progress and limits

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August 2022, provides for investments of 370 billion dollars (approximately 360 billion euros) for the energy transition, the development of new energies, the manufacture of electric vehicles, solar panels and batteries, the deployment of charging stations, and tax credits for the purchase of electric cars.

But the text does not set a ceiling on national greenhouse gas emissions and does not directly discourage the use of most fossil fuels, for example by taxing carbon. It allows the continuation of authorizations for the exploration of fossil resources as well as the increase of investments in hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of gas and oil from shale.

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