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The emissions fighting industries that might save coal country

As coal continues its precipitous decline, with shipments to the U.S. electric sector hitting their lowest level in 15 years, the problems the industry faces are becoming increasingly existential.

A young man holds a coal car steady as coal pours in. Image Credit: Flickr/foundin_a_attic

But the waning power of the coal industry can still mean political havoc for the rush to green American industry, if recalcitrant, coal-dependent regional economies aren’t presented with viable alternatives to shore up their failing finances.

To make achieve its climate goals, the U.S. needs to give coal country new jobs, and some fledgling efforts from the Department of Energy (and private industry) are pointing the way forward.

So far this year, the Department of Energy has announced nearly $140 million in funding for renewable energy related revitalization projects targeting the heart of American coal country.

The financing is designed to support the production and development of rare earth elements and other minerals; the development of carbon capture projects; and industrial remediation projects that the U.S. thinks are necessary for its successful transition to a clean energy economy.

The relatively small check sizes from the Department of Energy mask how important this push for funding could be for the transition to a future powered by clean energy sources.

If the U.S. is to move rapidly to meet the targets set under the Paris Agreement and decarbonize its industrial base it will need the buy-in from the political representatives and residents of states long opposed to regulations focused on curbing greenhouse gas emissions or promoting renewable energy out of fear that those policies would cost the region jobs.

Those are politicians like West Virginia’s ranking Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin and Republican Senators and Representatives from states like Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah.

Without the support of politicians from these regions, the Biden Administration will have a difficult time getting the bulk of its infrastructure and climate agenda through Congress.

That’s why the potential for economic development that these projects signal are so important. It’s a sign that the energy transition won’t leave some workers behind or risk erasing the economic base of entire communities.

The country will also need to shore up its access to these resources for national security reasons as well.

“America is in a race against economic competitors like China to own the EV market — and the supply chains for critical materials like lithium and cobalt will determine whether we win or lose,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, in a March statement. “If we want to achieve a 100% carbon-free economy by 2050, we have to create our own supply of these materials, including alternatives here at home in America. And we must scale up new American industries that will create millions of good-paying union jobs to do it.”

Around 35 rare-earth elements like platinum (but not vibranium or adamantium), are vital components in several clean-energy and high-tech applications — like magnets in wind turbines; batteries in electric vehicles, internal combustion vehicles and grid storage applications; phosphors in energy-efficient lighting and displays; and catalysts for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, according to the DOE.

Currently, the U.S. relies on imports from nations like China and the Democratic Republic of Congo for many of these rare earth elements. In fact, imports account for 100% of our supply of 14 of the 35 elements, and over 50% of 17 others, according to the DOE.

These opportunities for economic development and industry extend far beyond rare earth mining. New startup businesses developing technologies around carbon capture and sequestration, carbon utilization, and the potential for significant lithium deposits in the region give experts like Scott Quillinan, the Director of Research at the School of Energy Resources, at the University of Wyoming, hope for the economic future of the state.

These are companies like CarbonBuilt, a Los Angeles-based startup which recently was awarded $7.5 million as a winner in the XPrize for its technology which sequesters carbon dioxide emissions in a cement replacement.

Gaurav Sant, founder and chief executive of CarbonBuilt. Image Credit:

Working out of Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center — a facility designed to provide pilot scale testing grounds for tech that’s looking to capture and use carbon dioxide emissions from power plants or industrial plants — CarbonBuilt was able to make concrete using captured CO2 from the site.

“We’re starting to put together a hub for low-carbon research, centered on Gillette,” Quillinan told a University of Wyoming publication back in 2019. “We have the Integrated Test center, the CarbonSAFE project, the CO2 enhanced oil recovery opportunities that are in the area, and an opportunity to take CO2 to market. We’re working with the other people in this arena to develop an integrated strategy for the economic management of carbon dioxide.”

Methane emissions are another huge problem for the region, given the amount of flaring that goes on from natural gas operations across the country. There too, startups are turning waste into opportunity. Specifically, companies like Crusoe Energy, which harnesses wasted natural gas from abandoned or underutilized wells and uses it to power data centers and cryptocurrency mining operations.

Beyond rare earth elements and greenhouse gas utilization, there’s a good chance that these mines could provide significant quantities of lithium — another crucial input for the batteries that power electric vehicles.

Demand for lithium is exploding, and concerns are already mounting around the environmental impact of new projects looking to extract lithium deposits.

Image Credit: Axios

Against the backdrop of rising demand, The New York Times reported that the Lithium Americas project in Nevada (the first planned large scale lithium extraction project in years) has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because of its projected use of billions of gallons of groundwater, and the potential for environmental contamination.

Quillinan and other researchers have only recently started looking at the potential for lithium deposits in Wyoming, but other projects (backed by the Department of Energy) have shown results in pulling rare earths from coal ash.

The issue, experts said, is that the lithium deposits were too close to the surface for mining companies to detect, because they were drilling much deeper into the earth to find deposits.

“The problem with all of these companies is that they’re focusing on one commodity with tunnel vision and they don’t see the others,” said Roman Teslyuk, the founder and chief executive of the startup prospecting company, Earth AI. “There was this iron company that had a mine and it was running out of metal and sold the lease to a mineral resources company that found next to the mine the world’s largest deposit of lithium. They got the lease cheaply and turned it into millions of dollars.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for the major coal producing regions of the Mountain West is in carbon sequestration and fixing the mess that emissions from mined coal have caused.

Massive geological formations offer prime real estate to store, monitor and manage captured carbon dioxide and new direct air capture technologies are coming to market.

Indeed, Carbon Engineering is developing a massive gigaton scale sequestration project in the shale deposits of the Southwestern Permian Basin.

While it’s a different geography, the scale of that project shows that huge direct air capture projects are being developed — and it’s only a matter of time before those projects make their way North to take advantage of the unique geology the Powder River Basin affords, according to some experts.

“The question had always been, could we fund a multi-hundred-million-dollar plant, find a site and get it built?” said Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering, a direct-air-capture company based in British Columbia, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “The answer now is, fantastically, yes.”

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