Have new companies perfected dry coal, and can it save the industry?

Have new companies perfected dry coal, and can it save the industry?

Businessman Bruce Bruso sat down last week and wrote a frustrated letter to a senator in Kentucky championing what he believes is the future of Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin coal.

The secret that will save coal is to dry it out, he said.

“It’s important that you understand,” Bruso wrote to Sen. Mitch McConnell. “If you want to save the coal industry, you need to look at technology that is real, common sense.”

What he proposes is a technology that has come and gone in fashion because of issues with spontaneous combustion and durability. But both Bruso and a New York company think they’ve solved the problems. If successful, these pioneers say, they could make Cowboy State coal more valuable and cleaner to burn.

As president of CBA Environmental Services, based in Pennsylvania, Bruso feels like he’s crying into the void on the future of coal, he said. Politicians at the highest levels have promised a fossil fuel revival in the U.S after the downturn that wiped away thousands of coal mining jobs across the country and decimated the coal price in the last few years. Though many coal supporters hope for a rebound, economists and industry analysts project long-term declines in the industry due to how dirty it is when burned for electricity.

A common response given by coal supporters is that clean coal is possible through carbon capture, which grabs carbon dioxide emissions after coal is burned by power plants. Politicians like President Donald Trump have picked up the rallying cry.

Wyoming has invested millions in carbon capture research. The Dry Fork Station in Gillette is the largest testing facility for carbon capture in the U.S. The technology is promising but is still too costly to entice industry buy-in without government cost-share support, those closest to the industry say.

Bruso and others like him say the carbon capture approach is backward.

They claim they can reduce emissions and increase the value of Wyoming coal before it ever reaches a power plant.

Moisture problems

A recent article in the Oklahoman turned heads in the Cowboy State when it stated that Clean Coal Technologies, a New York-based company, claimed to have perfected the drying technique. The company’s testing facility was on the move to Wyoming.

The firm’s CEO, Robin Eves, said Wyoming is a possibility, but the final decision hasn’t been made.

Like Bruso, Eves said his dehydration technology can save coal.

Wyoming coal is wetter and softer than the high-quality coal dug from the Appalachian Mountains. Though its low sulfur content and cheap cost have made it a favorite of electricity producers since the 1980s, it has a much lower heat value. Put simply, it doesn’t sustain as much heat as the hard, dense and dry coal back east.

Jason Begger of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority said the technology has been around for a while but has repeatedly failed to make good on its promises.

“The problem with earlier drying technologies is the coal would simply reabsorb moisture once it got wet again, like a sponge,” Begger said. “The breakthrough will be when companies figure out how to keep it from reabsorbing moisture and do it economically.”

The older test also made the coal unstable — prone to spontaneous combustion.

“I do not know their particular technology, nor have I seen any of their cost calculations, but they must have seen some very positive results to be willing to test at a larger scale,” he said.

Clean Coal’s technology has been through a six-month test run.

It doesn’t combust. It’s dust-free, and it doesn’t reabsorb, they say.

“We’ve kept very much below the radar for the last few years,” Aiden Neary, Clean Coal’s COO. “This space has been riddled with claims that have failed, and we recognize that. We got on with this with no federal funding. We ran the test privately. We paid for them ourselves. Only now are we in a position to say this is what it actually does and here is the proof.”

Both Clean Coal and Bruso’s Environmental Services claim to increase the heat value of Wyoming coal from around 8,000 Btu to more than 12,000 Btu that is available in Appalachia.

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Another benefit to drier coal is that it weighs less, cutting through burdensome transportation costs.

Bruso, though, has run into the opposite problem for dried coal: a railroad surcharge for higher heat value. Producers don’t want to use the technology before they ship the coal because the higher-value product will be more expensive, he said.

Either way, the higher-value, drier coal has a global market appeal, the entrepreneurs say.

And it’s an enticing thought in coal-rich Wyoming.

Across the sea

Wyoming has long coveted access to Asian markets, with some companies like Cloud Peak Energy snatching modest contracts overseas.

However, coal port terminals on the West Coast are not popular with those voters, putting up a wall between Wyoming and the object of its desire, said Travis Deti, director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

“We are still hopeful. There are those Asian countries that want to buy our coal,” he said. “If we can just overcome some of those hurdles thrown up on the coast, there is potential there.”

The technologies that Bruso, Neary and Eves are trumpeting have caught the attention of industry in Wyoming, he said.

Bruso is hopeful for his small industry but frustrated by the narrative on clean coal. He’s a third-generation coal man who says he voted for Trump.

The politicians are missing the big picture, he said.

“If Trump is riding on the fact that clean coal is going to save the coal miners’ jobs, it’s not,” Bruso said. “Power companies are not going to spend billions to build carbon capture when the science is not proven … the best chance for success to preserve mining jobs is to use a sensible technology that bridges the gap.”