The University of Wyoming and the state at-large have “a lot of good things going on” when it comes to energy development and research, a Trump administration official said this week.

Steven Winberg, U.S. Department of Energy assistant secretary of fossil energy, visited the UW campus Friday as part of a three-day tour seeing for himself the investments the state has made in the energy industry. The top administration official had just come from the High Bay Research Facility when he met with members of Wyoming’s CarbonSAFE project, which is funded by the DOE’s Carbon Storage Assurance Facility Enterprise (CarbonSAFE) initiative, at the Energy Innovation Center.

UW, Windberg said, had the right combination of factors needed to do “very important” work in energy development.

“There’s a combination where you have new, top-shelf, analytical equipment and researchers that know what they’re doing and an enthusiastic student population,” Winberg told the Boomerang. “We’re going to see very good things coming out of the High Bay (Research) Facility we saw earlier today. And then of course the work that’s being done on coring in the Wyoming area to look for opportunities for CO2 sequestration. It’s very important. I’ve been very impressed.”

Wyoming’s energy portfolio and UW’s research fits with the administration of President Donald Trump’s policy goals and its “all of the above” energy strategy, producing coal, oil, gas, wind and solar, Winberg said. The state of Wyoming, he said, is acting progressively in maintaining the strategy that meshes with the president and DOE Secretary Rick Perry. The public-private partnerships in Wyoming, and in other states, will be important in executing the department’s energy goals, as well, he said.

“(Perry) talks all the time about utilizing or unleashing American ingenuity and creativity and innovation,” Winberg said. “I think that the work at the university and that’s been done more broadly in Wyoming is a testament to that American ingenuity and innovation. We can solve any problem we need to solve with that collaboration. What Wyoming and other states are doing has a significant impact across the U.S., and, more importantly, the world.”

Wyoming’s economy, driven primarily by fossil fuels, still has not recovered from a drop in energy prices starting in 2015 that saw enormous cuts to services and many leaving the state in search of better opportunities. While a state revenue estimating report in July projected the economy performing better than expected, coal’s decline continues as state lawmakers look again during this interim at options for diversifying Wyoming’s revenue streams.

The visit to Wyoming came at the invitation of Gov. Mark Gordon, who said Thursday during Winberg’s stop in Cheyenne that he did not think the rate of decline in coal are signs of a near end. Winberg said Friday he spoke with Gordon about how administration policy could help Wyoming’s economy in developing new coal-fired technology and looking at products that would be alternatives to burning coal for energy. That could include building materials, carbon nanotubes and a material serving as a replacement for wallboards.

Winberg also pointed to an executive order signed by Trump in April meant to address the state of Washington’s blocking of coal export terminals, a political grievance for some in Wyoming. During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that would have authorized the beginnings of litigation against Washington to open the ports seen as important to the future of Wyoming’s coal industry. However, Gordon vetoed the bill, saying that while he hoped to see the coal ports opened, he wanted the state to “speak with one voice on the matter,” according to the Casper Star Tribune.

The president’s order for the DOE to study the matter, Winberg said, could be a significant factor in improving Wyomig’s economic outlook.

“Wyoming has Powder River Basin Coal that can be easily exported into Asian Pacific countries, and that will be displacing lower quality coal,” he said. “This is higher quality, low sulfur, high-heating value coal, and there is a market need, a market pull from the Asian Pacific. We can’t get the coal there because of the West Coast terminal and the president is very concerned about that. We will be studying that and giving recommendations in the next several months.”

It would be premature to say specifically what mechanisms would be recommended, but Winberg said the department is examining what it would take to compel Washington state to open the ports.

Winberg said, however, that it’s not “do or die” for Wyoming’s economy should Washington’s opposition to using its ports for coal prevail. Whatever the outcome of that matter, he said he believes the Cowboy State’s coal sector has reason for hope.

“I think there’s a reasonably bright future for Powder River Basin coal,” Winberg said.

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