It was standing room only at the Wright Public Library last night as residents packed into a hearing about a nearby project that would burn coal seams underground to produce synthesis gas or syngas.
Linc Energy’s proposed underground coal gasification project has been in the works for years, but from the public testimony, many Wright residents were hearing about it for the first time. And they had lots of questions about the process, which has never been developed commercially.
For example, they asked if the technology was proven to work, why their community should be the place where the technology is perfected, and where the money would come from to fix anything that might go wrong.
The concern that came up over and over again was that the process would impact the region’s water. The coal Linc Energy wants to burn is part of a large aquifer called the Fort Union. Linc has asked for permission from the state and federal governments to pollute a small part of that aquifer as part of its process. If it gets that permission, it will do a pilot project to show it can confine the contamination and clean it up. The state thinks it’s possible, and has recommended that the federal government grant the exemption. But most people at the meeting were unconvinced. Mike Moore owns a ranch next to the project site, and he says there’s just too much uncertainty.
“Pilot project to me is experimental,” Moore said. “There should not be an exemption on an experimental project”
Meanwhile, proponents of the project touted the benefits of finding a new use for Wyoming coal that’s buried too deep for surface mining. Marion Loomis with the Wyoming Mining Association testified that most of the state’s coal is classified as an economically unrecoverable “resource” as opposed to a recoverable “reserve.”
“Developing in-situ coal gasification holds promise that may allow us to reclassify some of those resources into reserves. And the potential benefits to the state are significant,” Loomis said.
Campbell County Senator Michael von Flatern also sees the potential benefits of the process, and says from everything he’s seen, the water quality concerns can be addressed. But, he adds, the concern is warranted.
“There was not enough information given out publicly prior to this. So I understand them completely having that fear that something could happen,” von Flatern said.
Many residents found themselves leaving the meeting with more questions than they had before they went in. But it will be a while before they get any answers. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality says it will compile the comments for public review, and respond to each of them individually, in writing.
It will also forward the comments and responses to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the final say in whether to approve the aquifer exemption.