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Costs bury Von Flatern’s coal slurry pipeline idea for now

After meeting with the Wyoming Pipeline Authority, Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) has tabled his idea to build a coal-slurry pipeline from the Powder River Basin, citing costs.

Von Flatern, outlined his idea for a pipeline, most likely to the west coast, in a Dec. 6 story published by WyoFile. He said Thursday that pipeline officials’ estimates of operating and building costs made the concept uncompetitive with the current practice of shipping by rail. He and officials had discussed cost estimates for building a pipeline that was between 40 and 46 inches in diameter, based on the ETSI coal slurry pipeline proposed in Wyoming in the 1970s.

Railroads are relatively cheap to operate because the companies built the bulk of their infrastructure— the rail lines — a hundred years ago. They’re no longer paying off those construction costs, while pipeline builders would have to finance between $6 and 8 billion dollars, according to initial estimates.

One hope Von Flatern has to make a pipeline competitive is to develop a value-added product that could convince those at the pipeline’s destination to help with construction costs. For example, the water used to move the coal slurry could be sold if it could be separated at the far end of the pipe. Another idea would be to use charcoal filters, which Wyoming coal could provide, for desalinization plants the west coast is considering building to turn seawater into drinking water.

For now, Von Flatern said, he’s going to table the idea until after the 2017 legislative session, and take some time to ponder the problem.

“Maybe somebody will say ‘the heck with it, it’s not feasible,’” he said. Or maybe, he suggested, someone with more horsepower than him will pick up the idea.

In the meantime, as Von Flatern has noted, some people who want to “keep it in the ground,” — opposing coal production and coal burning  —  have a dim view of a coal slurry pipeline.

Among those are activists at “350 Missoula.” 350 Missoula is an offshoot of 350, a national web of climate activists that seeks to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. The concentration is at 400 parts per million today.

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Over the last three years, activists with 350 Missoula have been arrested in Helena and in Missoula for entering railroad property and protesting. In September 2015, a separate activist group called Blue Skies, that has now been absorbed by 350 Missoula, locked themselves together and blocked a coal train.

The group protests coal trains because of more threats they see from coal dust blowing off the cars, or potential derailment of a coal car.

Even if a pipeline could eliminate those immediate concerns, Jeff Smith, the co-chairman of 350 Missoula, said a slurry pipeline would be a bad idea because the world has to move past coal. “Every single dollar that we spend from this point on developing fossil fuel infrastructure is taking that dollar away from where we need to go,” he said.

It’s fair to say his group would resist the idea, Smith said. “Not only that we’ll resist in every single way we can possibly think of,” he said. “We’re an organization that believes in non-violent resistance, and we will resist.”

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at [email protected], follow him @AndrewGraham88

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