Charleston – Those who remember promises public officials in West Virginia have made about the future of the coal industry are skeptical of a new initiative Governor Jim Justice announced to research alternative uses for the fossil fuel.
During his State of the State address at the West Virginia Capitol Wednesday, Justice, a Republican and coal company owner, announced that the Wyoming-based company Ramaco Carbon would be opening a research facility in West Virginia focused on turning coal to carbon fiber.
Justice said that Ramaco "can make carbon fiber out of coal that is … four times as light as steel and twice as strong.”
“They absolutely have a way to do things with coal that can be an alternative use for coal that it would be so perfect for us, it is unbelievable,” he said.
“WVU, right now, I am announcing tonight and I’m sure that everyone probably already knows, but they are going to develop and open a research facility at WVU to research just this," Justice said. "And not only that, Ramaco is looking at the possibility of bringing one of these plants to southern West Virginia.”
Ramaco spokeswoman Liz Brimmer said Thursday that WVU is not involved.
She said the research facility would be located at the WV Regional Technology Park in South Charleston.
According to the press release, Ramaco Carbon is "an affiliate of publicly traded Ramaco Resources, Inc., which has existing metallurgical coal production operations in southern West Virginia and employs over 400 individuals."
Also according to the release, the facility "will be the second such coal research facility that Ramaco Carbon currently has under development, which are called iCAM centers (Carbon Advanced Materials) The first research center, located in Sheridan, Wyoming, is under construction and is scheduled to open this summer."
In an interview Thursday, Brimmer said that the research facility will open, but whether a plant also opens in West Virginia is still to be determined.
James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at WVU, said Thursday that he fears coal to carbon fiber technology, like coal gasification or liquefaction, may not be cost-effective.
"It's a competitive marketplace," he said. "You can turn coal into gasoline but petroleum gasoline is cheaper. If it's not done at a price that's competitive in the market, it’s a waste of resources."
Van Nostrand also noted that the Department of Energy is using federal tax dollars to research the technology, "part of Trump's promise to bring the coal jobs back." He noted that only a limited amount of coal would be needed.
"It's raising hopes and expectations that the coal industry is going to still be as prominent as it was in the past and that's – we know better," he said. "Even if this does prove to be successful, I fear it's just another example of 'here's another silver bullet that's going to bring the coal industry back.' "
"How many times have we heard this?" he said. "Come on. It's never coming back."
According to Ramaco's website, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Ramaco Carbon "and its partners" $5 million in federal grants to support the creation of alternative uses for coal.
Van Nostrand said, "It's clear you avoid some of the environmental impacts of coal by not using it to generate electricity, but you’ve still got all the other environmental impacts involved – coal miner safety, black lung disease, particulate matter.
"We're just stuck in the past rather than looking forward to figure out a way to diversify the state’s economy that doesn’t have such environmental impacts."
In response to a question about environmental impact, Brimmer pointed to Ramaco's website, which states that "predictive modeling" showed the mine involved in the Wyoming project would have "minimal impacts to existing water supply wells (and) local aquifers" and that "an independent firm" had "confirmed the mine design does not create the types of conditions that have led to subsidence in the past."
A district judge ruled in November of 2019 that the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council, a state agency, did not have the authority to reject a 2017 mining permit application from Ramaco Carbon, "clearing a significant obstacle from the company’s path to opening Wyoming’s first new coal mine in more than 40 years," according to The Sheridan Press.
According to the newspaper, the judge ruled that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, a separate state agency, should have been charged with the decision-making.
That newspaper also reported that The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a group representing landowners opposed to the proposed mine, were concerned about "deficiencies in Ramaco’s coal mine permit regarding groundwater and hydrology, subsidence and blasting."
Delegate Tony Paynter, R- Wyoming, said Thursday he was reminded of promises that a coal to gasoline project was coming to Mingo County.
"That was supposed to have been a done deal," he said, "and that was 2008.
"That's generally par for the course," he added. "I hope it happens, but who knows? Southern West Virginia needs all the help it can get."
Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion and minority whip, was reminded of promises about coal to liquid as well as uses for coal byproducts.
"First of all, I would certainly welcome any new facilities in West Virginia that would utilize our natural resource of coal," said Caputo, a retired United Mine Workers of America official. "I've also been around a long time, and I've heard a lot of promises made about alternative uses of coal that I have never seen come to fruition."
He said while he was cautiously optimistic, he wanted to "see some movement instead of just talk because I’ve heard this many, many times."
"I just hate giving people false hope," he said.
Statewide, coal production fell from 128 million short tons in 2012 to just over 70 million short tons in 2016, according to WVU's Economic Outlook report. Coal output increased to 95 million short tons in 2018, and 2019 was expected to remain at roughly that level, John Deskins, the director of West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research said in October. His bureau projected it would then slip to 85 million within five years.
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