The future of coal?

It’s way too soon to declare whether a proposed coal gasification plant at the site of an idled mine near Paonia is a good idea, but it’s certainly intriguing.

Bowie Resources LLC hasn’t lobbied for approval or initiated a public relations campaign to extol the project’s economic impact. The only hint that the company is considering building a plant came from a permit revision application submitted by a contract engineer on behalf of Bowie to the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

Delta County’s administrator said the company hadn’t approached local officials about the proposal, but that the county would be “very interested.” The county has lost hundreds of coal mining jobs in recent years, so anything that could put miners back to work would be a welcome consideration.

The Sentinel’s Dennis Webb provided a quick overview of the technology and some of its drawbacks in Monday’s paper. In many ways, coal gasification mirrors oil-shale development. It’s a way of creating synthetic natural gas from coal. Processes to develop unconventional energy are important in that they provide a hedge against limited supplies of oil and gas. But the “shale revolution” and the use of fracking have produced cheap and abundant natural gas, marginalizing the need for alternative technologies.

Still, the Department of Energy acknowledges that “many experts predict that coal gasification will be at the heart of future generations of clean coal technology.” Coal gasification offers one of the most versatile and clean ways to convert coal into electricity, hydrogen and other valuable energy products.

So the technology has great promise, but it’s only viable if the cost of natural gas rises to the point where syngas can compete — or in places, like China, that are rich in coal but short on natural gas.

An analysis by the Institute for Energy Research reports that China plans on building 50 coal gasification plants in its northwest region. These plants emit up to 99 percent fewer criteria pollutants than coal plants, according to the IER.

A Duke University study showed synthetic natural gas emits seven times the greenhouse gases of natural gas and almost twice as much carbon as a conventional coal plant. As Webb pointed out, the technology Bowie wants to use generates virtually no pollution, but a lot of carbon dioxide, the chief catalyst of climate change.

Climate impacts will draw the scrutiny of conservation groups. If Bowie is serious about building a coal gasification plant, it will have to present the project as having value beyond its carbon footprint. Maybe it can devise a method of capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide and export the technology to developing countries that will be using coal gasification to fire their power plants.

These projects can costs billions of dollars and are expensive to operate. They may not make financial sense given the low cost of conventional fuels, but we need to allow for investment in clean-coal technology if we’re ever going to reap the benefits of this abundant local resource.


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