Officials tout results of carbon capture study, others skeptical

CHEYENNE — Joined by several state and federal officials at a press conference Thursday, Gov. Mark Gordon praised the findings of a study on the potential for carbon-capture technology in Wyoming.

But others questioned its rosy assumptions amid a changing energy landscape.

The study, which was recently released by the U.S. Department of Energy after Gordon requested it last year, focuses on the feasibility of carbon-capture utilization and storage at nine coal-fired power plant units in Wyoming. Among its key findings was that retrofitting those units could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 37% more than PacifiCorp’s Integrated Resource Plan, which was released last fall and calls for the early retirement of several Wyoming power plants by 2030.

During the press conference Thursday, Gordon said “extending the life of coal is a wise investment for Wyoming and a wise investment for the globe.”

“This study gives us a good database from which to further consider (carbon-capture utilization and sequestration) in Wyoming,” Gordon said, adding it could also be helpful for other states’ Public Service Commissions in evaluating plans moving forward.

Others, however, questioned how useful the report actually will be for evaluating carbon-capture projects at places like the Jim Bridger plant in Kemmerer and the Dave Johnston plant in Glenrock.

David Eskelsen, a spokesman for PacfiCorp, said the report contains “significant limitations,” and the utility company continues to evaluate its conclusions, “many of which are simply wrong.”

“Given the current high capital costs of implementing carbon capture on coal-fired generation, as well as other barriers, carbon capture has not been considered a viable option to date, which is why it has only been installed at a single facility nationwide,” Eskelsen said, in reference to the Petra Nova project in Texas.

University of Wyoming energy economist Rob Godby said many assumptions within the study are “farfetched,” noting the study doesn’t consider the ripple effects of carbon-capture technology on ratepayers’ bills.

“(The outcomes) look great – thousands of jobs, thousands of dollars in income – but what they don’t evaluate is where the money’s coming from to pay for these projects,” Godby said. “If it’s coming out of the pockets of Wyoming ratepayers, then that’s not additional jobs to the state. It’s just displaced jobs.”

The plan outlined two different scenarios, both of which would extract carbon dioxide from flue gases, the waste streams produced by power generation. Under one scenario, the captured carbon dioxide would be stored in the state’s subsurface aquifers, while the other assumed a combination of underground storage and the sale of the compound through enhanced oil recovery.

Under both scenarios, the study showed the potential for tens of thousands of construction jobs to allow for the retrofitting of the power plants over the next decade. Modeling for the robust job creation, however, was based on several assumptions, including that the nine carbon-capture retrofits would all be installed between 2023 and 2026, that have yet to become reality.

Godby noted Wyoming doesn’t have the existing workforce to simultaneously retrofit the units, meaning the scenario assumed in the report would depend on many out-of-state contractors.

Developing the technology for sequestration is only part of the equation, as the process also requires a place to store the captured carbon dioxide. During the press conference Thursday, Gordon and EPA officials confirmed Wyoming has been granted primary responsibility over some of the state’s underground injection wells that could be used to store the compound.

Doug Benevento, the EPA’s acting deputy director, said the move from federal to state control recognizes Wyoming as a proven partner in the management of water quality.

“This marks only the second time that any state has received primacy for Class Six UIC wells, which are used for the long-term storage of carbon dioxide captured from industrial- and energy-related sources,” Benevento said.

The transfer of primacy to the state also comes as the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources prepares a permit application for one of its carbon-capture projects. Scott Quillinan, the director of the school’s Center of Economic Geology Research, said the research done at UW over the last few years will be easier to advance with direct supervision from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

“Researchers at the center have concluded that the geological formations that underlie the state of Wyoming have the potential to safely store billions of tons of CO2,” Quillinan said during the press conference.

The primacy will likely accelerate the development of a site near the Wyoming Integrated Test Center in Gillette to store more than 50 million metric tons of CO2 underground.

Beyond its potential economic impacts, carbon-capture technologies have often been discussed as a potentially useful tool to reduce climate change. Gordon suggested the growing need to combat rising temperatures could also help accelerate the market for carbon-capture technologies.

“I know it’s often easy to take shots at carbon capture and say it’s uneconomic,” Gordon said. “But if you really talk about what we need to do to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere … this is the way to do it, and there will be a cost that will have to be borne in order to achieve the urgency to deal with it.”

From Godby’s view, the PacifiCorp plan, which outlines a bill-dollar-plus investment in solar and wind energy to pivot away from coal-fired plants, presents a fork-in-the-road moment for the state.

“(The study) hasn’t evaluated the trade-off that occurs in energy development accurately,” Godby said. “They’ve ignored the activity that won’t occur if you choose to develop (carbon capture), so the true numbers need to net that out.”

Godby, in summary, described the report as essentially “irrelevant information, because it’s information about a world that will probably never exist.”