Pipe dream 

Hopes for a coal-powered future darken by the day

A tough year for coal boosters got even tougher last week when the backers of a $1.5 billion coal gasification plant near Roundup threw in the towel on their bid to try to apply an expired air quality permit to the project.

Steve Wade, an attorney for Bull Mountain Development, said Monday, Sept. 17, that the company has decided to cease its attempt to “modify” the expired permit and plans to “move forward when they get the application prepared completely.”

The news is the latest blow in a string of setbacks for coal development at Bull Mountain. Plans for the coal gasification power plant have been plagued by lawsuits, financial trouble and permitting problems, and a second proposal to build a coal-to-liquids (CTL) facility seems to have vaporized as well.

In July a Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hearings examiner ruled that the state had improperly extended Bull Mountain’s air quality permit for a conventional coal-fired plant after that permit had expired. The company went back to the DEQ in the days before the permit expired in 2005 and asked for an extension, saying it now intended to build a coal gasification plant. The hearings examiner ruled the DEQ couldn’t modify a permit that had already expired.

Wade said the developers will submit a new permit application once they have more financial backing in place for the coal gasification plant. Wade also said the company shouldn’t have any problem getting a new air quality permit, given that a coal gasification plant would produce far fewer emissions than a conventional coal-fired plant, for which the company had already received a permit.

Montana Environmental Informa-tion Center (MEIC) Program Director Anne Hedges, the woman who led the fight against Bull Mountain’s original air quality permit, said she thinks developers will have an uphill battle trying to get a permit and the means to build a coal plant there.

“I think the world shifted underneath them,” Hedges said, noting that the public’s attitude toward coal is increasingly negative in light of increased attention to global warming. “They might get an air quality permit, but there’s more than that involved. They have to have financing.”

Lack of financing was a primary reason the Bull Mountain project never got off the ground in the required time frame, eventually costing the company its air quality permit. In addition to Bull Mountain’s problems in Montana, Wall Street analysts are now advising investors against putting their money into coal development.

Meanwhile, a second and much-vaunted CTL plant that would turn coal into diesel, also proposed for the Bull Mountain site, seems to be foundering.

Last fall Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced an “agreement to build [a] CTL facility in Montana” at the Bull Mountain mine, touting the project as “a major step in converting into a reality America’s hope for an alternative to imported oil.” Despite the Schweitzer administration’s staunch support of the project and Bull Mountain’s promise of an “economic bonanza” for the state, the primary companies touted last October as backers of the CTL project are now denying any involvement.

Arch Coal of St. Louis is the second-largest coal producer in the country and a 25-percent partner with DKRW Advanced Fuels, the company named by the governor’s office as the “primary developer” of the CTL project. When contacted by the Independent earlier this week, both Arch Coal and DKRW denied involvement with the Roundup CTL plant.

Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said Tuesday that the company “never had a part in the Bull Mountain [CTL] project.”

A spokeswoman for DKRW similarly dismissed that company’s involvement with the Bull Mountain CTL project, saying that DKRW has “no official connection to the plant,” despite an Oct. 2 press release from the governor’s office that stated DKRW Advanced Fuels “will take the primary role as the developer of the Bull Mountain CTL plant.”

“We are clearly interested in coal to liquids and have been interested in Montana, but our flagship [CTL] project is in Medicine Bow, Wyo.,” said DKRW communications director Kate Perez. “This particular project is somebody else’s, not ours.”

A spokesperson for SNC-Lavelin, a Canadian industrial engineering and construction firm, could not confirm that company’s involvement in the project either. The Oct. 2 press release indicated that SNC-Lavelin would oversee construction of the plant.

“All I can tell you is that I do not know of a Bull Mountain Montana Project,” said Gillian MacCormack, vice president of corporate public relations for SNC-Lavelin.

A call to Evan Barrett, Schweitzer’s chief business development officer, was not returned as of press time.

With the Bull Mountain coal gasification project stalled out and no apparent progress on a CTL plant nearly a year after its announcement, the controversial Highwood Generating Station near Great Falls is now the only permitted coal plant proposal in the state. However construction has yet to commence and the Highwood air quality permit is being appealed by MEIC and could face a long legal battle.

Hedges said Bull Mountain’s loss of its permit is a major victory for the environment and big step toward a future less reliant on Montana coal for power.

“I think once people start understanding that they’re not going to get coal without an enormous battle, they’re going to start looking at energy efficiency,” Hedges said. But she also offered this warning: “As long as coal is there, people are going to want to make a profit off of it.”
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