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Wyoming Is Among The States Spending Millions To Promote Carbon Capture

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The bipartisan infrastructure bill now in the House includes billions of dollars to capture climate-warming carbon emissions. It would be the largest ever federal investment in such technology. Coal producers love this idea, although environmental groups doubt that it works. So we've called Cooper McKim of Wyoming Public Media, who is host of the podcast "Carbon Valley," which is a fair description of the state you're in. Hey there, Cooper.

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

INSKEEP: What is carbon capture?

MCKIM: Yeah. So basically it means grabbing CO2 emissions from, say, smokestacks and then bring them underground or creating something else entirely with them.

INSKEEP: Oh, which makes it possible to keep using coal even as you try for zero emissions. And I think I understand why this would be so important to Wyoming because I was recently driving across Wyoming, and sometimes you're on a highway and you're parallel to the railroad tracks and you come along a coal train and two or three minutes pass, you're still passing the coal train. It's so huge. It's a big deal in Wyoming, even today.

MCKIM: I know. Yeah, so coal-fired energy is disappearing super fast. Last year, consumption fell to its lowest level since 1949. And in Wyoming, fossil fuels, like you said, are very much a part of the culture as much as the economy. So they pay for everything from schools to sports complexes. So around here, you do see those trains stacked with coal, a ton of oil rigs but then also things like wind farms. So in many places, wind and solar power are now cheaper than coal. So a decade ago, Wyoming leaders realized carbon capture could be a way to keep the economy going and keep coal plants going. Here's former Governor Dave Freudenthal.

DAVE FREUDENTHAL: I saw it as a silver bullet possibility for making coal more competitive in the context of a world whose policies were moving quickly towards carbon constraints.

INSKEEP: How is Wyoming trying to fire that silver bullet?

MCKIM: So the state's invested millions in this. There are projects to store CO2, to build a pipeline network to transport it. Wyoming also built a carbon capture testing center and hosted this big $20 million competition to help startups get off the ground. Turns out, finalists were much more interested in helping the climate than coal.

INSKEEP: Well, there was a cool podcast series you did on that competition. But why do environmental groups not like this idea?

MCKIM: Thanks. Yeah. So they worry the tech will just prolong the life of fossil fuels. So, for example, the majority of large-scale facilities that captures carbon injects it into oil fields to increase production. In Wyoming, an ExxonMobil facility sells its CO2 for that. Mike Ewall with the Energy Justice Network says carbon capture is basically just good marketing.

MIKE EWALL: So every bad industry needs to have that public relations in order to make themselves look like they're part of the solution, even though they're clearly part of the problem. And we need to get past this greenwashing and move to the true solutions.

MCKIM: Yeah. So to be totally clear, many environmental groups do support carbon capture. Even the United Nations has said it is critical to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

INSKEEP: Could it at least help the coal industry?

MCKIM: Yeah, so it's an open question. The tech is expensive. The only carbon capture project at a commercial coal plant in the U.S. had to be shut down last year. Other projects now are either short on funding or behind schedule. Meanwhile, the private money for carbon capture projects is moving away from coal. More projects are connected instead to industrial plants.

INSKEEP: Cooper, thanks so much.

MCKIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Cooper McKim of Wyoming Public Media, host of the podcast "Carbon Valley." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.