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Wyoming Doubles Down On Its Long Support For Carbon Capture


U.S. coal production is down to its lowest level in half a century. But the country's largest coal-producing state is desperate to keep the industry going. With support from the Trump administration, Wyoming is investing big to try and clean up coal's carbon emissions. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim has more.

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: The largest utility in Wyoming, Rocky Mountain Power, has found it makes economic sense to start retiring its coal plants early and invest heavily in renewables across the West. That isn't going over well in a state whose economy is tied to coal. At a recent public hearing, County Commissioner Kent Connelly said when a plant is shut down, it's not just jobs that are lost.

KENT CONNELLY: I lose 50% of the taxes. It's just that simple.

MCKIM: Connelly says it doesn't have to be like this. Coal plants in Wyoming could stick around if utilities just considered retrofitting them to capture the carbon they emit.

CONNELLY: We will change how we use coal in America. There's no doubt about it. We'll get there with carbon capture.

MCKIM: The idea - a coal plant would be retrofitted with new tech, its emissions would be removed and then sold. But Rocky Mountain Power says right now, that technology is too expensive and not proven. The utility's Rick Link says its decision is an economic one.

RICK LINK: The entire analysis is driven by shifts and changes in the market conditions.

MCKIM: Even so, Wyoming is doubling down on its long support for carbon capture. This year, lawmakers mandated that by 2030, utilities produce a certain amount of electricity from coal plants using carbon capture technology. Ratepayers would bear the expense of that.

The Trump administration is also trying to boost carbon capture. It's passed a federal tax credit and is funding research projects. Holly Krutka oversees several through the University of Wyoming. She envisions capturing CO2 emissions for a variety of profitable uses, including turning them into new products.

HOLLY KRUTKA: Soil amendments, building materials, asphalt replacement.

MCKIM: The problem is many others think the moment for carbon capture to help coal has come and gone. Arizona State University's Klaus Lackner remembers giving presentations promoting carbon capture to the coal industry 20 years ago. Without that, he warned that climate change would be the industry's demise.

KLAUS LACKNER: I said, look, if the year 2020 comes around, you are not going to be allowed to build a new coal plant because every bank in the country will know that they will not get their money back. So you better, by 2020, have the ability to build power plants that are completely carbon neutral.

MCKIM: But that hasn't happened. Energy economist Rob Godby says part of the reason could be politics. The Republican Party, which strongly supports coal, actually may have hurt the industry by downplaying climate change.

ROB GODBY: You know, climate change doesn't exist. There's no justification to develop low-carbon technologies like carbon capture. So in an ironic way, the Republicans killed carbon capture as much as anybody else.

MCKIM: Only one coal plant in the U.S. created a successful business model for carbon capture. It's called Petra Nova in Texas. But that fell apart after the pandemic led to an oil price crash.

Analyst Dennis Wamsted with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says he can no longer imagine a utility saying...

DENNIS WAMSTED: Hey, we really want to do this. We really want to build a carbon capture facility, and we really want to put it on our 35-year-old, 40-year-old coal plant. And we're going to prove it's going to make money.

MCKIM: Wyoming's governor, Mark Gordon, isn't put off, though. He points to wind energy, which also needed help early on but is now a fast-growing industry. He says that means you don't give up. For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim in Laramie.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "KEEP PAINTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and now Wyoming. In South Carolina, he covered recovery efforts from a devastating flood in 2015. Throughout his time, he produced breaking news segments and short features for national NPR. Cooper recently graduated from Tufts University with degrees in Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.