Wyoming Council Rejects Residents’ Protests Of Underground Coal Gasification Plant

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

Coal trains idle on the tracks near Gillette, Wyo.

Last week, Climate Progress published a story detailing an Australian company’s proposed underground coal gasification (UCG) plant in Campbell County, Wyoming. The plant would create synthetic natural gas out of coal that is buried too deep for surface mining by setting it on fire and injecting it with oxygen and water.

The plant would be the only one of its kind in the country if approved, and it needs exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act — the law that protects the quality of drinking water — to go forward. Local residents and environmental groups are fighting the project, saying it is an untested process that only promises to contaminate their already dwindling water supply with deadly benzene.

On Monday, the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council rejected those residents’ protests by a 6-1 vote, according to Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney at the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “The one vote against said that he was concerned that the agency didn’t look at water quality,” she said.

The council’s vote effectively gives the okay to Linc Energy’s application for a “state research and development” license to drill thousands of feet into Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin. Now, the project is in the hands of the EPA, which only needs to exempt the project from the federal safe drinking water law for it to go forward into a testing phase. The proposed project site is located in part of a major regional aquifer.

EPA representative Richard Mylott told Climate Progress that it would “thoroughly review technical information regarding resource production, extraction activity, and the adequacy of measures — both during and following production — to prevent the movement of contamination from the exempted production zone to underground sources of drinking water.” Mylott also said that EPA would take public comments into consideration.

“The EPA has always told us that [UCG] is a non-starter, yet the company and state agency are moving ahead,” Anderson said last week. “I don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes, but I know there is a lot of political pressure from the company.”

Anderson went on to say that Linc, the Australian UCG company that just recently pulled out of its Australia test project because of regulatory agencies stalling them, has hired Wyoming’s former governor David Freudenthal to represent them in the permit proceedings. As the Democratic governor of the state, Freudenthal staunchly advocated for large federal investments in so-called “clean coal” technologies.

Freudenthal still deals with coal in a big way. He made $182,325 ($147,500 in cash and $34,825 in stock awards) in 2012 for serving on the board of Arch Coal, the second-largest coal company in the country. Fruedenthal still serves on the board, most recently buying 3,650 phantom securities from the company in October. In total, Freudenthal has bought 23,958 in Arch Coal securities at a current price of $4.11 per share, making his total direct interest in the company a little under $100,000.

More about Linc Energy’s proposed project can be found here.