Bill could make new market for coal

The Energy Bill working its way through Congress could provide a new market for Northwest Colorado coal.

Included in the bill is legislation that will make Colorado coal part of a test program for integrated coal gasification technology.

The program is designed for coal gasification at altitudes above 4,000 feet.

Coal gasification involves combining coal with oxygen and steam in a high-pressure, high-temperature facility. The process turns the coal into a variety of substances, including synthetic natural gas, hydrogen and methanol. The chemicals created also can be used for diesel fuel.

Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Denver, amended the Sen-ate's Energy Bill last month to include Colorado in the test program.

If President Bush signs off on the Energy Bill with the Salazar amendment, it would provide a grant for companies to explore coal gasification technology.

The amendment passed in the Senate but hasn't made it to the House. The Energy Bill in the Senate and its counterpart in the House still have some major differences that will have to be resolved before the bill reaches the president's desk.

Cody Wertz, a spokesman for Sen. Salazar, said he doesn't think the high-altitude gasification program will be one of the casualties when the House and Senate try to reach a compromise.

"Obviously, coal is very important to Colorado -- Northwest Colorado in particular," Wertz said.

Gary Stiegel, technology manager for gasification for the U.S. Department of Energy, said the Senate's Energy Bill would help move coal gasification into the next generation.

"It's designed to provide financial incentives to get the next generation of gasification technology deployed," Stiegel said.

Stiegel said the attraction of coal gasification is its flexibility.

The process, which Stiegel said has been around in different forms for more than 200 years, is currently used in China for chemical production, in South Africa for transportation fuels, and in Tennessee to convert coal to synthetic natural gas.

Stiegel said gasification produces much lower emissions than burning coal. Carbon dioxide emissions are especially low, he said.

"It's a very environmentally friendly technology," Stiegel said.

Current gasification plants use the high-sulfur coal common in the eastern United States, but Stiegel said the low-sulfur bituminous coal found in Northwest Colorado would work, as well.

"Bituminous coals process very readily in high temperatures," Stiegel said.

Forrest Luke, environmental manager at Trappers Mine, said that though coal gasification is the coal technology of the future, he doubts it will be ready anytime soon for large-scale commercial operations.

"I'm not sure we're quite there yet with it," Luke said.

Dianna Orf, a lobbyist for the Colorado Mining Association, said the process sounds good, but like Luke, Orf said it is still years from commercial production.

"There are a lot of things that need to be worked out," Orf said.

But, she said, with energy demands increasing, she welcomes any energy-producing process.

"We have a need for so much additional energy," Orf said, "that it's going to require everything we've got."

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