Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Wallula coal plant proposal controversial among students, faculty

In part due to the success of Al Gore’s latest film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” followed by his subsequent honor as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his efforts in promoting awareness of man-made climate change, the imminence of global warming has found its way into the mainstream.
In Washington on May 3 of this year, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed Substitute Senate Bill 6001, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction legislation, enforcing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. She told the Seattle Times, “It is a testament to the unique, broad-based coalition that came together: utilities and environmentalists, faith communities and business leaders.”

It might then surprise many that, despite this movement towards environmental stewardship, Washington is in the process of approving a new coal plant.

The Wallula Energy Resource Center is a coal processing plant proposal led by United Power, a company based out of Gig Harbor, Wash. It is projected to begin operations in 2013.

Coal plants have garnered a reputation as being a complete nightmare for the environment. Each plant can emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, directly contributing to global warming. Burning coal causes sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and mercury to reenter the ecosystem. Coal is, however, abundant and cost-effective.

WERC, to be built on an approximately 759-acre piece of industrial property in Wallula, Wash., claims to be different. With new gasification and carbon sequestration techniques, proponents of the project that it would be 35 percent cleaner than a typical coal plant. It would produce 700 megawatts of energy, about half the energy required to power the city of Seattle.

“Because of the consequences of global warming I do not believe that any new fossil fuel-powered electricity generated facilities are justified. I believe that we should reduce our energy use, and if we need more energy, use different ways of getting electricity,” said Professor Bob Carson.

At $2.1 billion, WERC, if approved, would be the single largest private proposal ever made in Eastern Washington.

Coal for the plant would be transported from Wyoming by rail. The site for WERC is served by UP and BNSF railways and is located next to the Columbia River, which would serve as another option for transporting materials.

Because of the transportation and coal mining required, some argue the amount of carbon that would be emitted for WERC to function would be far more than legal limit, as determined by the GHG emissions reduction legislation.

“The total carbon emissions that are going to come from sending the coal to this plant and the environmental degradation caused by coal mining in the first place are just pretty much going to outweigh anything that the carbon capture would do,” said senior Beth Frieden, a member of Campus Climate Challenge.

WERC would use Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology to generate electricity, as well as carbon sequestration.

The gasification process involves first liquefying coal and vaporizing it. Then, sulfates and nitrates are removed from the coal, extremely harmful chemicals that cause such phenomena as acid rain. The synthetic gas is emitted and run through turbines in order to generate electricity.

Carbon sequestration is an experimental technique. In Wallula, it would involve injecting liquefied CO2 into basalt rock formations about a mile and a half below the proposed site. The liquefied CO2 would interact with basalt and mineralize into calcium carbonate. With 65 percent of the CO2 sequestered, this would, in theory, enable the coal to burn as clean as natural gas, which is the cleanest of the fossil fuels.

“[Sequestration] is completely unproven technology,” said environmental studies-chemistry major sophomore Spenser Meeks. “This is the first time that anyone in America has done this. Carbon sequestration has been used previously in places like Norway, pumping tons of liquefied CO2 underneath the sea…but it has only been going on max 20 years. So there is no way to tell whether it is going to bubble up or what might happen there.”

“It is critical to learn about carbon sequestration,” said Carson. “Not necessarily because we are going to build new fossil-fuel powered electricity-generating facilities that need to sequester that carbon, but because we probably need to sequester carbon from existing fossil fuel generating facilities, and it may be even important or desirable someday to sequester carbon in our atmosphere that is already there.”

“If the world insists on having fossil fuel-fired power plants, especially coal, which is less efficient in terms of the amount of CO2 generated per unit of energy than if we can sequester the carbon dioxide, that is better than no sequester,” said Carson.

Carson detailed that there are over 25 alternative ways of producing electricity, some of which include wind power, geothermal and photovoltaic.

“Some of them are not as yet cost-effective, which is why we are not doing them. For some of them there has not been much research…and that is in part due to the relatively small amount of government funding for new energy technologies,” said Carson.

Professors Carson and Anne Finan asked their Environmental Studies 120 class to discuss their opinion of the proposed plant in brief research papers. Stances differed.

“The vocabulary when talking about carbon sequestration consists of ‘may’ and ‘might,'” said environmental studies-politics major sophomore Kelsey Yuhara. “It is possible that the basalt will not allow slow enough flow for mineralization to occur. Even more troubling, scientists cannot predict how carbon sequestration will impact the environment. Perhaps these basalt wells deep in the earth will impact the environment above land more than humans recognize.”

“I believe that funds and attention dedicated to supporting the continuation of nonrenewable, ‘dirty’ energy sources would better support the dream of a livable future if diverted to fully renewable and non-polluting energy alternatives,” said sophomore Camila Thorndike.

Campus Climate Challenge is currently coordinating, as a group, a response to the plant proposal.
“It would be nice to see from them more obvious commitment, to actually making sure that they are not emitting carbon and doing something about the coal transport and the coal mining,” said Frieden. “It would be nice to see a recognition of the problems with coal. I think that what we are seeing instead is that they are trying to sweep them under the rug.”

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