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Western Coal Exploring Policy And Production Challenges

Grace Hood

Industry officials are in Denver for the National Western Mining Conference. The annual event comes at a time when the coal industry is facing unprecedented policy challenges and court battles.

The theme of the 2014 conference is “Moving Forward”and it comes with its share of obstacles. Burning coal is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and the Obama administration wants to reduce it. That prompted a rule from the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at curbing emissions at new power plants.

Now the coal industry is bracing for further limits from the Obama administration on existing power plants.

“We face challenges at both the state and the national levels,” said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association.

Coal production across the state reached a 20-year low in 2013. Much of that was attributable to mine closures. When it comes to making coal cleaner through carbon capture and sequestration — where it’s captured and stored underground — Sanderson said the technology suggested by the EPA has not been adequately demonstrated.

“These Obama rules are going to be litigated in court for years and years and years to come,” said Sanderson.

But the EPA is arguing that the industry is up to the challenges – both financially and technologically—and won a court battle on the matter April 15.

"The utility industry has seen significant reductions in the major emissions regulated by state and federal governments. When you look at carbon, it's a whole different proposition."

A federal appeals court upheld 2012 EPA regulations that limited mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. The court rejected the industry’s argument that the EPA should have considered the costs of regulations. The one dissenting judge on the panel raised concerns that those costs could top $9 billion per year.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association — a utility serving cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming — communications director Lee Boughey said that there are both challenges and progress.

“The utility industry has seen significant reductions in the major emissions regulated by state and federal governments,” said Boughey. “When you look at carbon, it’s a whole different proposition.”

Current carbon sequestration technology is costly and energy intensive. To make it more affordable, his company is trying to come up with different processes to turn carbon into products, like building materials, fuels and chemicals.

“If we can do that, we can significantly reduce the cost of managing carbon that creates a lot of opportunities,” he said.

Tri-State is already working in Wyoming to develop a new $15 million carbon utilization center to explore these novel uses for captured carbon. Wyoming’s governor Matt Mead just signed a bill approving funds.

The debate will continue to rage on carbon emissions and carbon sequestration. The EPA rules for existing plants are expected to be released in June.

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