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Slurry pipeline may be solution to high cost of shipping coal

Coal in this state might have an easier time getting to market if Wyoming could simply be moved and tucked in next door to, say, Arkansas. But geography being a fixed fact, Wyoming coal makes a long haul to the utilities of the south-central United States by rail.

And that costs. ''The rail tariff for hauling coal can be several times the value of the coal itself,'' a Powder River Basin mine official notes.

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An alternative form of transport has gained attention over the years, though: coal-slurry pipelines.

Coal would be ground to the fineness of granulated sugar and mixed with water. This suspension would be pumped like oil and ''dewatered'' by centrifuges and filters at the end of the line.

Two short coal-slurry pipelines, one of which is no longer operating, have been built in the United States. But the first long-distance pipeline is inching toward reality. This is the 1,400-mile ETSI Pipeline Project, a joint venture of several energy companies. It will start in Gillette, run down the eastern edge of the state, take a nick out of Colorado, run diagonally across Kansas, slice across Oklahoma north of Tulsa, and then cross Arkansas, terminating in Cypress Bend, in the southeastern corner of the state.

The line will use water from the Oahe Reservoir near Pierre, S.D., bought from that state at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion over the 50-year life of the project.

Two suits over the pipeline will have to be resolved before construction goes forward. One, filed by the Kansas Southern Railway, the Sierra Club, and farmers' groups in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri, states downstream from the Oahe Reservoir, against the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, challenges the environmental impact statement prepared for the project. A second suit, by the three downstream states against the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, challenges the water contract.

Frank Odasz, ETSI's representative here in Casper, dismisses these actions as ''routine delaying tactics.''

Over the past 20 years or more that coal pipelines have been discussed, the major objection has come from the railroads, who argue that coal hauling is their rightful domain, even as pipeline advocates shout ''monopoly!'' The particular forum in which the railroads have made their opposition felt has been Congress: Each Congress since 1962 has considered bills to grant right of eminent domain to coal pipelines. This would keep railroads from refusing to allow pipelines to run under their tracks, as they do now. Each time the bills have died.

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But ETSI is continuing independently of the outcome of legislation pending in Washington. It took advantage of state eminent domain laws and then took the tricky cases one at a time - in fact, 65 lawsuits in all, over five years. The lawyers got around railroads by finding places where railroads had built on land that was not theirs, and then making deals with the actual owners.

The next steps for ETSI, besides settling the suits, are acquiring the last of the necessary rights of way (the railroad crossings have all been settled) and testing plant and equipment.

Across Wyoming, the pipeline controversy turns less on the railroads than on water. Water is an emotional issue here. At first blush, sending precious water down the tubes, so to speak, just to give utilities in Louisiana a better deal on fuel does not seem a good idea.

But this correspondent, polling people informally around the state, found a consensus, at least among coal people and economists, that at some point the figures would be right to justify slurry pipelines.

Russell Donley of Casper, speaker of the Wyoming House, and Eddie Moore of Douglas, president of its Senate, persuaded their colleagues to pass a bill authorizing export of water for two coal pipelines. One would use the saline Big Sandy River; the other would rely ultimately on treated sewage effluent.

Their idea was that the state would sell unusable water to build dams to retain the unspoken-for 1.5 million acre-feet flowing out of Wyoming annually. They also see pipelines as a way to boost mining employment: A 30-million-ton per year project like ETSI's would generate 900 to 2,700 direct jobs.

But Gov. Ed Herschler vetoed the bill, ostensibly because of concern over water, but in fact, Messrs. Donley and Moore assert, because of loyalty to the railroads.

The morning after the veto, Senator Moore was quite ''ticked off,'' in his own words. Would he and Mr. Donley try to introduce the bill again? ''I don't think it makes much sense to try to get one of these bills through as long as Herschler is governor.''

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