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Cover Story

Cleaning up coal in West Texas expected to help fuel SA and wring out the oil patch

Photo: Photos by Greg Harman, License: N/A

Photos by Greg Harman

Photo: , License: N/A

Larry Pickerel of Legato Resources

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Summit Energy’s Laura Miller

There's a mean-sounding hiss emanating from one of a dozen pipes rising like stovepipe to feed into a desert-tan battery that intermittently flushes high volumes of fluids 4,500 feet below ground. Larry Pickerel, the robust production foreman for Legato Resources, explains how valves on the water-alternating-gas wellhead skid — as the installation is known — are wrenched open or shut to flood nearby oil wells with either water or carbon dioxide. "We don't run the CO2 consistently, we have to decide on a pattern," Pickerel says.

This particular oilfield has already been tapped and water flooded multiple times to bring more oil to the surface. But it's the CO2 pipelined down from Colorado that acts as a prized lubricant and loosens up the hardest-to-reach dregs. It's such a common resource here in West Texas that there are 3,200 miles of pipeline dedicated to it. "We use a seismograph to see where the CO2 is going because it's very valuable and we don't want to waste it," adds Bob Kiker, president of Applied Petroleum Technology Academy.

More than an oilfield lubricant, CO2 is also considered one of the most significant of greenhouse gases responsible for increasingly destabilizing the planet's climate as industry emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. To avoid the worst of global warming, scientists suggest that greenhouse gases, now tracking at 390 parts per million, need to be caught before they hit the 450 ppm mark. (Though, considering that these gases have generally stayed below 300 ppm for most of human history, a safer recipe would involve a rapid retreat to 350 ppm, others say.) To accomplish either goal will require the rapid shutdown of polluting technologies or the rapid deployment of new technologies to capture and store those greenhouse gases already being blamed for a portion of our recent extreme weather events.

An extraordinary — and extraordinarily expensive — coal plant expected to break ground next year a few miles west of Odessa could be part of the answer to stalling and reversing greenhouse emissions.

Odessa Chamber of Commerce President Mike George likes to refer to this blue-collar oil town as the "Clean Energy Capitol" of the United States. That's not due to the oilfield service trucks rumbling in every direction servicing a boom in oil and gas production that has sent hotel rooms here north of $250 a night. It's certainly not the myriad of wells marked by flame-tipped flares with the rotten-egg odor of hydrogen sulfide wafting. What has George so excited is the $2.5 billion coal gasification plant that may well be the first of its kind when completed. The director of projects for Summit Energy Group's Texas Clean Energy Project, former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, says the intention of the project is to "raise the bar forever so nobody can ever build a dirty coal plant again."

This 400-megawatt project is an example of what the federal government or coal lobby would term a "clean" coal plant. It will collect a full 90 percent of its carbon dioxide gases — an expected 2.5 million tons per year — to sell into the oil patch for oil recovery. By separating hydrogen out from the CO2, TCEP will also be able to create a stream of urea to be sold as fertilizer to the tune of 700,000 tons a year. In fact, the fertilizer is the money maker here, according to Miller. After that in profitability terms comes electricity sales, followed by CO2 sales. Lastly, an estimated five percent of the company's revenue is expected to come from the sale of sulphuric acid, argon gas, and "inert non-leachable slag." Don't call TCEP a power plant, this is a "polygen" plant, producing a number of marketable streams that at day's end make the carbon capture process cost efficient.

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