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Effort on at all levels to transform PRB into nation's Carbon Valley

Going carb-free may be the diet du jour for people looking to drop a few pounds, but when it comes to re-imagining the Powder River Basin’s coal-dependent economy, many believe in carbon-loading.

Even as PRB thermal coal production has declined by more than 50% over the past decade, more research, innovation and development is being pushed to find ways to make coal clean to use and much more valuable.

News Record File Photo 

The Eagle Butte mine just north of the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport produced 12.3 million tons of coal last year. At an average of about $12 a ton, the coal was worth about $147 million when burned to produce power. As a source of carbon for manufacturing, Powder River Basin coal has the potential to be worth many thousands times more per ton.

A push to develop the PRB and its 25 billion tons of available coal to spark a new carbon economy for northeast Wyoming aims to evolve the region into the Carbon Valley. Like what California’s Silicon Valley has achieved to become the world’s leading hub of computer and technology development, local, state and federal officials are banking on the Carbon Valley to advance new carbon industries that go well beyond just burning coal.

It makes sense that northeast Wyoming could become the nation’s Carbon Valley, and the region is well on its way to earning the nickname, said Rusty Bell, a Campbell County commissioner and supporter of the initiative.

Saying that “it’s time to rethink coal,” Ramaco Carbon’s website explains its Carbon Valley vision.

“We already are that kind of area, and the reason I say that is we’re sitting on the resource already,” Bell said. “We’re sitting on 25 billion tons of recoverable coal. We want to use it.

“Whether we use it for energy production or something else, we should be looking forward because our miners don’t care what they’re going to do with that coal.”

Treating coal as an ore allows producers and manufacturers to take the base carbon from coal and use it to make much more valuable, useful and climate-neutral products, Bell said.

Things like carbon nanofiber and graphine are two examples of things that can be made from coal ore that potentially could be worth thousands of times more than the $11-$12 per ton it’s worth to burn to produce electricity.

Courtesy Ramacocarbon.com 

This illustration shows how scalable 3D printing technology could be used to make valuable products from carbon extracted from coal.

‘Too valuable to burn’

One company on the leading edge of creating this new Carbon Valley is Ramaco Carbon, a private endeavor near Sheridan that has built a combination research/incubator facilities that can take coal and turn it into valuable carbon products.

One facility, called the iCAM research park, provides space for higher education, national laboratories and private companies to research and prove their coal-to-carbon innovations, said Randall Atkins, Ramaco CEO and chairman of the National Coal Council.

“We started really trying to approach alternative uses for coal about six or seven years ago and have pretty much been at the forefront of that,” Atkins said.

The company also runs its iPARK manufacturing center, which is next to the Brook coal mine. Like locating a power plant at the mouth of a coal mine, Atkins said a Carbon Valley approach could easily see at least one, if not many, manufacturing facilities at the mouth of a mine in the future.

“There’s a real future for using coal in an alternative manner that has been explored going back to the late 1970s and early ’80s when the Department of Energy did a lot of funding for research on coal to liquids,” Atkins said. “At the time, we thought we were going to run out of oil and that oil was going to be $300 a barrel.

“Needless to say, that didn’t go anywhere. But what we’ve done now is borrow some of that technology and done a fast-forward 30-40 years with technology and new materials and have incubated the first coal-to-products vertically integrated platform.”

Liz Brimmer Photo/Ramaco Carbon 

The iCAM research facility at Ramaco Carbon near Sheridan is expected to begin housing tenants in the next few weeks.

The iCAM is expected to come online within the next few weeks, Atkins said, adding that he anticipates it will be a model for other Carbon Valley-motivated efforts.

“What I thought about when I originally coined the concept is finding advanced technology ... for a whole new use of coal,” he said.

Economically, the evolution could be as significant as other historical technological breakthroughs, Atkins said.

“Coal is too valuable too burn,” he said. “We believe that wholeheartedly.”

The carbon from the same Powder River Basin coal that now sells for about $12 a ton can potentially be translated into a value of $100 million a ton, he said.

Aktins testified for the U.S. Senate in April about how China already is investing money and manpower into the coal-to-carbon transition.

“Their economy is really coal-based from a chemical standpoint because they really don’t have any petroleum,” he said.

To that end, he said China is now building an average of a new plant a week to create carbon-based chemicals that soon could be going through 1 billion tons of coal a year.

That means the PRB doesn’t necessarily have to see it’s production continue to shrink, Atkins said. It’s gone from producing 426 million tons in 2011 to about 207 million tons last year.

“If you get the right uses, it will still require large amounts of coal,” he said. “The largest uses of thermal coal will be building products ... as well as things from carbon fiber. Those can use large amounts of coal.”

News Record File Photo 

A composite image shows Atlas Carbon, center, and the lot at the right for Clean Coal Technologies’ test plant at the former Fort Union mine site off Garner Lake Road north of Gillette. The site also will be home to the Wyoming Innovation Center, which recently broke ground.

Not reinventing the wheel

While words like “innovation,” “advanced” and “breakthrough” are often used in describing what creating a new Carbon Valley could mean for coal, it’s hardly a new concept, Atkins said.

“A hundred years ago, we did use coal to make a number of products,” he said. “Then the catalytic converter came along in the 1920s. They discovered you could use petroleum much easier for this type of conversion.”

With a century of technological advancement, Ramaco has “dusted off the playbook and found some pretty exciting new uses for it and to basically unlock the carbon in the coal.”

One of the major hurdles now is a fundamental prejudice against coal, Atkins said.

“The problem has been the mindset that coal is a four-letter word and there are those who would prefer no new coal would be mined,” Atkins said.

While a problem, getting people and industry to think of coal more as a source of carbon rather than a fossil fuel will happen over time, Bell said.

“The whole concept of the Carbon Valley is we’re going to continue to ship our coal, but we’re also going to find ways to make it carbon neutral, or even carbon negative,” he said.

To that end, the Wyoming Innovation Center recently broke ground on its carbon research incubator in Campbell County. In partnership with the University of Wyoming, the WIC is similar to Ramaco’s iCAM in that it’s geared toward not only researching ways to use PRB carbon, but monetizing it.

“That facility is not just talk to see if this works,” Bell said. “They’re going to be testing things at the university level and try to scale those up and pre-commercialize those. We don’t want to study these things forever, we want to start commercializing things.”

A leave-it-in-the-ground attitude toward coal is not practical, he said, adding that economic diversification for the PRB has to happen with coal, not around it.

To do otherwise “is like someone sitting on the coast and trying to get away from fishing as an industry,” Bell said.

Courtesy File Photo/CarbonBuilt 

Cinder blocks infused with waste carbon dioxide from the Dry Fork Station power plant north of Gillette are formed while the CarbonBuilt team was at the Integrated Test Center last summer to show how its technology can scale. The UCLA team’s project is one of two NRG COSIA XPrize winners announced in April.

All things carbon

Another way the region is positioning itself as the nation’s Carbon Valley is by embracing many types of carbon research and usage. That includes ongoing efforts to capture, sequester and reuse carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Extracting the CO2 from industrial emissions not only provides a potentially valuable source of carbon to make any number of products, it also helps solve one of the globe’s greatest industrial problems. Turning hazardous waste CO2 into something valuable is driving a number of efforts around Gillette.

Private industry also has targeted Campbell County for research or making carbon-based products.

Clean Coal Technologies has worked with UW researchers to redesign and refine its process of drying coal in a way that keeps the mineral stable. The result is a much lighter coal that burns cleaner and produces comparable energy output to untreated.

Atlas Carbon uses a proprietary process to create activated carbon products for water and air filter systems from Powder River Basin coal and has been a model for showing there are other uses for the commodity than burning it.

At the Integrated Test Center, TDA Research Inc. of Colorado tested one of its carbon capture technologies. Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan also has committed to do research at the facility as has the Japan Coal Energy Center.

With the conclusion of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize earlier this year, which used the ITC to research and prove CO2 capture and reuse technologies, the facility is expanding its profile. Recent large project commitments for the ITC means the center has surpassed $100 million in research and development money for tenants.

“The goal of the ITC was always to help scale up (carbon capture) technologies to commercialization,” said Jason Begger, the ITC’s managing director. “We have had tenants successfully complete testing at different scales and have more lined up to test onsite over the next 18 months.”

The Integrated Test Center has become one of the world’s most prominent CO2 capture and reuse research facilities and the CarbonSAFE initiative has already passed a number of research phases to show the potential for storing captured CO2 beneath the Powder River Basin.

Carbon Valley is more than a vision or hope at this point, said U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming.

“It’s definitely an area where we’ve already begun to lead the way,” she said. “In a lot of areas, Wyoming is demonstrating how important these technologies are, particularly what’s happening at the ITC and the projects the Department of Energy have selected for carbon capture.”

She said the potential is real and that “the money and the resources are going into what can really become a model for the rest of the country. ... I’m excited about what’s going on and I think there’s a lot of interest in what we’re doing.”

The all-of-the-above approach to carbon also means there’s still room at the table for coal-fired energy, especially if it comes with ways to capture and repurpose CO2 emissions, said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming.

“Energy really is the bread and butter and our country needs all the sources of energy it can get,” he said. “Wyoming has been leading the way with (carbon) innovation, and that’s what we need — innovate rather than having punishing government mandates.”

Carbon Valley is an evolution and focusing of efforts to keep Wyoming’s most abundant resource relevant, said Barrasso, who also is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“Raw coal can be mined, it can be treated, it can be refined to be used in high-tech, high-value products,” he said.

At the federal level, Barrasso and Cheney both said they continue to push legislation that encourages and incentivizes Carbon Valley research and development.

“What we can do as the federal government is to make a difference for the economy in Northeast Wyoming,” Barrasso said. “We have to continue to add value to our coal and energy resources.”

Gerald Gardner works his hands over a common juniper bonsai to remove dead needles at his home Friday morning.

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Judge rejects plea agreement, sends man to prison for sex crime

A judge has rejected a plea agreement that would have resulted in a suspended sentence in a case where a man repeatedly tried to solicit women for sex.

Instead, District Judge Stuart S. Healy III sentenced Gilberto Zaragoza, 44, to prison for two to three years.

Healy detailed Zaragoza’s repeated failures to abide by his probation in past felony convictions — including threatening to shoot a past probation officer in the head — as justification to go against the plea agreement.

“The court believes that based on your conduct over the last four years, you are a danger to the community and you are not an appropriate candidate for probation,” Healy said at Zaragoza’s sentencing.

In the plea agreement, Campbell County Attorney Mitch Damsky recommended a two- to three-year prison sentence, suspended in favor of a 90-day split sentence in county jail and then three years of supervised probation.

But Damsky noted that it was Zaragoza’s fourth known felony.

“He has a deviant dark side and that’s got to be addressed,” he said. “It’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ We keep coming back.”

If Zaragoza violated his probation again, the recommendation would be prison, Damsky said.

Zaragoza said that he’d been going to therapy and made changes with his family that would keep him within the law, according to court transcripts.

“I shouldn’t never have done it, and I’m sorry for it. Very sorry. And I can guarantee it will never happen again,” he said.

Zaragoza was convicted in New Mexico in 2001 at age 21 for attempted sexual penetration of a minor and later served nine years after violating probation in the case, Healy said.

He was convicted in Campbell County in July and August 2018 for misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution for contacting women online and asking them for sex in exchange for money and pictures.

But he was arrested in May 2019 on four counts of attempted promotion of prostitution and one count of promoting obscenity that allegedly happened starting in August 2018 and continued into May 2019.

He allegedly reached out to four women on dating websites and offered them money for sex. He said he would pay them between $3,500 and $7,500 if they’d go to his house and have sex with him.

Police were able to track him because his user names, verbiage and information were similar each time.

They created a fake identity on one dating website, which he responded to, asking if the officer would be interested in having sex with him for $3,500.

When the officer responded, “Are you serious?” he sent photos of stacked $100 bills and an obscene photo, according to court documents.

In the meantime, he also had been charged with failure to register as a sex offender and pleaded guilty to it and to one of the counts of attempted promotion of prostitution in March 2020. He was given a suspended prison sentence and placed on three years of supervised probation.

Then he was arrested in July 2020 — about a month after he was sentenced — after police learned of similar solicitation efforts.

Police noted that the language in the most recent solicitation was almost identical to those he used earlier. Zaragoza was prohibited from having internet access as part of his probation, yet had a cellphone and PlayStation consoles with access.

He told police that he went quite awhile without dating apps, but shortly after his sentencing he gave in and downloaded two apps on his cellphone to “see what was out there,” according to court documents.

Healy also noted an instance in which he was charged with interference after trying to solicit sex for money with two 17-year-old girls at the YES House who actually did meet with him and then “were super scared” after he became “very pushy.” He refused to submit to restraints and had to be physically restrained by three officers and forced into handcuffs, Healy said.

While Healy noted that he seldom rejects a plea agreement, he sentenced Zaragoza to two- to three years on the current charge, and he reinstated the three- to five-year sentence for failing to register and a two- to three-year sentence on the earlier case of attempting to solicit prostitution. They are to be served concurrently.

“Why did you send me to prison?” Zaragoza asked Healy at the end of the sentencing hearing. “I was doing so good.”

“Mr. Zaragoza, I wish you well,” Healy replied.

Prepare for a summer of music
Outdoor performances will range from rock and roll to country

After a year of few outdoor musical performances, Gillette will host a handful of summer concerts this year.

The events are billed as family friendly, where people can have a good time after being cooped up or getting out and about with not much to do.

“I can’t possibly describe to you how happy I am,” said Max Temple, CEO of DownTown Events, which is helping put on a couple of the outdoor concerts. “Not everybody realized how important it is to be part of a community event. The last 12 months have driven that home to everybody.”

Friday night’s Thunder Basin Thunder-Bolt Band’s fundraiser performance “Jazz in the Park” at Lasting Legacy Park kicked off the start of a summer of outdoor music.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Attendees tap their toes to soulful jazz played by Thunder Basin High School students during one of the group’s summer evening concerts at Lasting Legacy Park on Friday.

Get ready to dance in the street

Gillette Main Street will host weekly downtown Thursday night concerts starting this week.

The downtown Thursday shows, which are free, will happen from 6-9 p.m. each week through Aug. 12 at the Third Street Plaza.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Hailee Jorgensen plays the drums for the Thunder Basin High School jazz band Friday evening at Lasting Legacy Park.

The following acts have been lined up:

  • Thursday: My Second Rodeo. The group is based out of the Black Hills and plays a variety of music ranging from classic country to punk. “Our name is a little confusing,” bassist Garrett Holtz said. “Sometimes we get mistaken for a country band since we have rodeo in our name. We’re a little more of a rock band.”
  • July 15: Joey Leone’s Chop Shop. The Arizona-based band plays blues rock; think Led Zeppelin, Cream and Tom Petty.
  • July 22: Mickey Utley Band. The group plays a mix of country western and country rock.
  • July 29: Dan McGuiness Band. McGuiness once performed with Creedence Clearwater Revisited, which was led by original members of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stu Cook and Doug “Cosmo” Clifford. People on the 29th can expect to hear some Creedence classics like “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”
  • Aug. 5: Camp Comfort. The Black Hills-based band plays a variety of funk and blues.
  • Aug. 12: Boys of Summer. The group has been going strong since the early 1990s, playing a variety of oldies and classic rock mixed in with some country western.

Along with the sounds of toe-tapping music there will kids activities, food vendors and cold beer for sale.

There will be about 15 picnic tables set up along with places for people to park their chairs and relax. There also will be a designated area for dancing, Temple said.

“This is aimed to be more of a community event,” Temple said.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Angelo Palazzari plays the trumpet alongside the Thunder Basin High School jazz band at Lasting Legacy Park Friday evening.

Enjoy a serene, relaxing show at the cemetery

If people want to listen to music in a calmer setting, they can go to Mount Pisgah Cemetery.

The cemetery will host a free weekly acoustic series from 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays at the Inspiration Gardens.

“It’s a sister event to what Gillette Main Street is doing downtown with their Thursday night concert series,” said Darin Edmonds, Mount Pisgah Cemetery sexton. “Ever since we built the gardens, there has been an interest in doing some kind of summer concert series. It ended up being a really good opportunity to kind of work together to do that.”

Edmonds said he spoke to Temple about putting on an acoustic series or “what we had envisioned as a concert in the park,” about a year ago. Temple told the cemetery district there were some talented musicians who would be a good fit. However, COVID-19 caused plans to be canceled.

“We were really disappointed we couldn’t do it last year,” Edmonds said.

But people will be rewarded for their patience with the lineup that has been scheduled, he said.

The concert will comprise of the following artists:

  • July 13: The Nathan Dean Band. The Phoenix, Arizona-based group can play rock in any setting, especially acoustic.
  • July 20: Jessica Eve.
  • July 27: Kyle Wells, Jacob Johnson and Cody Henson. Three friends from South Dakota and North Dakota came together to create a blend of alternative country and rock music. Wells said some of their influences include Texas Red Dirt Country artists like Cross Canadian Ragweed and Reckless Kelly.
  • Aug. 3: The Blue Street Trio. The trio plays a variety of country and pop music on acoustic guitar with three-part vocal harmonies and a jukebox vibe with an ability to play song requests from any decade and genre.
  • Aug. 10: Devon Worley
  • Aug. 17: Sam Platts and the Plainsmen. Platts and the Plainsmen play a mix of western swing and classic country. Think Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys with some Ernest Tubb and Hank Thompson mixed in.

The concert series was designed to be done in a more relaxed setting, Temple said.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Attendees give a round of applause to the Thunder Basin High School jazz band Friday evening at Lasting Legacy Park.

“Just like you would if you were going to a concert in a park,” Edmonds said. “Stand and mingle, sit and mingle, bring a blanket or chair, whatever is comfortable.”

There will be food vendors and even beer will be sold, though no one is allowed to bring their own alcohol or leave the gardens with a beer in their hands. Aside from music will be some activities for children.

Edmonds hopes to make the concert series an annual event.

“This first year is going to be kind of a learning curve to see how it goes,” he said. “We’re hoping that it’s really successful and it’s something to do on a summer evening during the week, which was intentional. Weekends are tough because you’re competing against everything else — people at the lake and other events.”

While COVID-19 ruined many plans in 2020, Temple expects this year to be “a pretty fun summer.”