U.S. Department Of Energy Touts Petrochemicals, Puts Money Into Coal 'Innovation' Grants

Jul 6, 2020

Despite concerns about a global oil and petrochemical glut, the Trump administration released a report this week touting the strong future of coal and natural gas in the Appalachian region, and outlining ways state and local governments can help the energy industry such as investing in workforce development and infrastructure.

“There are tremendous opportunities on the horizon for Appalachia because of the shale gas revolution, and the region’s abundant coal reserves,” said U.S. Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes, speaking with reporters.

The Trump administration has slashed environmental regulations, while promoting fossil fuel production, including a petrochemical hub in Appalachia. The report touts Shell Chemical’s ethane cracker being built in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which will use ethane in the region’s shale gas to create plastics. It’s the first in what the report says could be multiple facilities like this. 

The final investment decision on another cracker plant, in southeastern Ohio, has been put on hold indefinitely during the pandemic. 

The report also discusses the future of coal and mentions industry efforts to encourage coal exports, and reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.

 

Coal Innovation Centers

The U.S. Department of Energy said it’s spending $122 million to establish research hubs around the country that will look at new ways to use coal as a base for material manufacturing. 

The DOE is using a new grant program to establish “innovation centers” in several parts of the country that will try to find ways to use coal as a material — like in light-weight carbon fiber or in so-called “rare earth metals,” which are used in electronics.

DOE officials made the announcement while touring a Consol Energy coal mine in Washington County on June 26. 

“It’s vitally important that America develop a viable domestic supply of rare earth elements, critical minerals, and other valuable products from our vast coal resources,” said Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, in a statement. “This effort moves us closer to that goal.”

The Department said institutions in several different coal basins could apply for funding through the program, including Appalachia, which includes Pennsylvania. 

James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University, said the effort is part of a broader Trump administration push to help out the country’s ailing coal industry, an effort that included a failed attempt to prop up money-losing coal and nuclear plants by former Secretary Rick Perry. 

“Coal is not a very cost-effective way to generate electricity, so (there’s) lots of pressure on DOE to bring the coal jobs back,” Van Nostrand said. “So (the agency) is trying to figure out products that coal can be transformed into.”

Van Nostrand said there’s no guarantee the program will yield positive results for taxpayers.

But he said one potential use for the money could be finding ways to use waste coal — which blights thousands of acres in Pennsylvania alone — and turning it into usable products. 

If we have a way of extracting rare earth minerals from a lot of the coal waste that’s already out there, it solves a couple of problems because we obviously have a lot of coal waste that needs to be dealt with and we can do something productive with that waste,” Van Nostrand said. 

The deadline for institutions to apply for funding through the program is November. 

Julie Grant contributed to this story. 

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.