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The challenge for coal

Jun 30, 2013 - Staff

The president's new directives set a clear direction Wyoming's industry must take

More than a year ago, Wyoming's prodigious coal industry saw some troubling handwriting on the wall.

President Barack Obama was laying strongly suggestive groundwork for a new executive policy that did not appear favorable to the coal industry. Central to it were regulations requiring substantial decreases in air-polluting emissions from power plants fueled by coal.

Already, coal's dominant position as the nation's top source of fuel for energy production had eroded. Most felt that the president wanted to push for even stronger restrictions on coal emissions.

But the industry held out hope -- not for a significant change in the president's ideas, but for his defeat in the 2012 election. This hope was no substitute for a strategy, and it turned out it wasn't much of a hope either. Obama was re-elected.

Now, as expected, the president has raised the stakes against coal. In a major policy address a few days ago, Obama announced that the administration would require that the nation's electricity generation capacity shift away from coal and aim toward renewable energy resources.

Coal is at a crossroads. Export markets probably will ensure that Wyoming continues to have a significant coal industry, but things will have to change if coal, including Wyoming coal, is to hold its own as a domestic energy source. Fortunately, our coal industry's history is one of adaptation. That legacy will need to be called upon and expanded now.

Once upon a time it was unknown how vast Wyoming's coal reserves were, but improved exploration techniques confirmed astronomical deposits. Once upon a time, the best way we knew to mine coal was to drill deep shafts into mountains and chip out the coal with pickaxes, or blast it out with dynamite. But in Wyoming, a different and better technique was discovered to exploit the huge and easily accessible veins of coal not far under the surface of the Powder River Basin grass.

The innovations continued. Midwestern power plants were willing to take Wyoming coal, but how could it be shipped to them in quantity? Once upon a time, the idea of sending a 500-car train to a Midwestern destination carrying a full load of coal and then returning to Wyoming empty was a preposterous one. The freighters scoffed. But good economic analysis demonstrated that this concept, called the unit train, was sound.

Once upon a time, there was no sufficiently large or sufficiently powerful excavating and hauling equipment to keep up with the demand for Wyoming coal. Now, however, trucks of almost preposterously large dimensions make it possible for hundreds of tons of coal to be carried in a single load.

When Wyoming's coal mines expanded to the point that the producing coal seams sometimes were miles away from the storage silos, it was Wyoming's coal industry that developed smooth, reliable, efficient conveyor belts that stretched thousands of yards, swiftly moving the coal from the excavation to storage.

When an earlier round of emission controls was introduced, Wyoming's industry helped pace a national effort to develop a new generation of coal-fired power plants with "scrubbing" filters on their smokestacks. Pollution from power plants decreased dramatically, and industry brought itself into compliance with new pollution regulations.

And when demands for better reclamation of mine land became national imperatives, Wyoming's coal industry employed top-notch environmental scientists to develop and implement land reclamation techniques that would have seemed impossible or impractical the generation before.

There is a trend here, and a legacy. Our coal industry has demonstrated time and time again that when the need is demonstrated, it can find ways to fill it.

Now it is time to do it again. The technologies to render coal emissions less harmful to the Earth's atmosphere can be devised. For coal's sake, they must be. With the hoped-for political solution has failed to materialize, the technological solution must come to the fore.

Wyoming is positioned uniquely meet this challenge. To do so will be expensive and at times deeply frustrating. But just as creative minds realized that the unit train could work, and that a truck with tires 20 feet tall could be built, and that land which once was nothing more than a gargantuan hole gouged in the earth could be transformed into a flowering prairie with a pond, so can a solution to this problem be found.

What have been lacking until now are two things -- the undeniable incentive to do it, and the will.

As of last week, the former clearly exists. From this point forward, the latter must exist as well.

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