Two state senators from Wyoming, the executive director of the Wyoming agency that oversees coal exporting, and an engineer working in the energy field visited Cherry Point and Bellingham Tuesday, June 10, to sell the concept of a coal terminal to Northwest Washington.
Wyoming produces one tenth of the nation's energy but only uses about one tenth of that. The rest needs to find a market elsewhere -- out of state, or in another country.
"We're always looking for markets," said Chris Rothfuss, Democratic state senator from Laramie. "There's a lot of demand in Asia for Powder River Basin coal."
The basin, which straddles the Wyoming-Montana line, is the largest source of coal in the United States and has helped make Wyoming the No. 1 coal producer in the country.
The Wyoming delegation went on a "drive-by" tour of the Cherry Point site where the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built. The terminal, if approved and built, would export up to 48 million tons of coal per year to China and other Asian countries -- or any other country that's within reach.
"We'd probably be willing to sell to anybody on the Pacific Ocean and consider that to be an available market," Rothfuss said at a meeting Tuesday with members of the Bellingham media (yours truly and the estimable Bob Simmons from Cascadia Weekly).
Wyoming officials might have known who their audience would be in mostly blue Washington. Without ever visiting government meetings in that state, I don't know how often officials in Wyoming toss around words such as "sustainable," "recycle" and "greenhouse gas" at home. But those words came up routinely in Tuesday's press meeting.
Democrats such as Rothfuss are more willing to talk straightforwardly about climate change than Republicans, including state Sen. Jim Anderson, who also was in Bellingham Tuesday. Anderson's district is at the edge of Powder River Basin.
Science aside, both parties agree climate change has become a policy and an economic reality.
"The common ground that we have between us is the perceptual reality," Anderson said. "If we want to maintain our economic viability, we've got to deal with what the perception is."
When the folks from Wyoming talk about shipping coal to China, they speak of it as an environmental benefit and practically an act of goodwill.
Low-sulfur Powder River Basin coal can reduce air pollution in China, officials said.
"People have looked to Wyoming for our low-sulfur coal for a lot of years," said Loyd Drain, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority. First it was other states in the U.S. (Classic coal state West Virginia is a distant second in coal production to Wyoming now.)
"We're seeing that same kind of demand worldwide now ... given the fact that the world is electrifying," Drain said.
One or 2 billion people in the world go without electricity, but in the future that number will decline, Drain said.
"I don't think I have the right to tell those folks they don't have the right to electricity and all the benefits that come therewith," Drain said. "We're going to see the world electrified, and the way that's going to happen to a large degree is fossil fuels."
Talk of China's coal demand peaking and then falling in the next decade or so didn't faze the Wyoming group. They envision a growing world population that becomes increasingly well developed economically. Dirt-poor farmers will transition into middle-class consumers that will begin taking those "benefits that come therewith."
"I would be very shocked if Chinese energy demand didn't continue to grow dramatically, requiring coal as well as natural gas as well as nuclear," Rothfuss said. "They are trying to grow in every aspect of their energy portfolio as fast as they can. ... There may be demand in the Pacific for exported coal for many years to come."
As Rothfuss alluded to with his "anybody on the Pacific" comment, Wyoming is indeed looking beyond China for buyers. The state is in direct talks with South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Wyoming also has an eye on the next up-and-comers, India and South Africa.
Wyoming officials don't think they are home to an outmoded energy form. They don't worry their economy will be left in the black dust as newer, cleaner forms of energy rise.
The world sin't turning away from coal, Anderson said. It's "turning away from coal as we know it today."
"As we look at future markets, I think we'll see the character of coal change," Anderson said. "It's going to be about clean coal. It's going to be about carbon capture."
Wyoming is working on carbon capture and sequestration through projects such as the Carbon Underground Storage Project in the southwest part of the state, which would store 300 year's worth of the state's carbon emissions. Wyoming officials also talk about carbon-eating bacteria.
The genetically modified bacteria convert carbon dioxide into a product that can be used to develop fuel.
Don Collins, chief executive officer of Western Research Institute in Laramie, said these super bacteria (the good kind) can be ramped up to production scale in five to 10 years.
We recycle paper, metals and glass, so why not energy? Collins said.
"That's our long-term scientific motivation, moral motivation, to find ways to recycle all forms of energy," Collins said.
Wyoming is well aware that the bacteria solution implies there is no need to curtail fossil-fuel burning. Carbon dioxide becomes not a problem but an opportunity.
Collins, speaking Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead's position, said, "We need to look at CO2 as a potential asset and a resource ... to really help out with this really big global societal problem."
As the hourlong media availability was breaking up, I remembered to ask the Wyoming folks about Lummi Nation. The tribe has a clear means to block the proposed terminal by asserting its treaty rights to protect habitat, including at the terminal site.
Wyoming is inviting tribal representatives "to see firsthand how this coal is mined, and things that we're doing to help further this in Wyoming," Drain said.
Gateway Pacific Terminal is facilitating this possible visit, Drain said. Hopefully it will happen by fall, "before the snow flies."
"We're very very interested with regard to what the tribal position is, what they're interests are," Anderson said.
A Lummi press contact was not immediately available to confirm this possible trip to Wyoming.