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Little towns brace for big projects  

This year, Rawlins-based Highland Enterprises will scour Carbon County for a good source of rock near Medicine Bow.

This spring, the company will pour foundations for 66 wind turbines, part of Rocky Mountain Power’s Seven Mile Hill wind project.

McMurry Ready Mix will begin a massive upgrade to a county road leading to the future site of DKRW’s Medicine Bow coal-to-liquids plant.

Although DKRW’s in-service date has been pushed back from 2010 to 2013, the heavy lifting begins in 2008. Communities must beef up roads, water, emergency and other social services to prepare for more than 2,300 workers who will flock to the area during peak construction of plant.

That’s more people than most towns in Carbon County.

Add that to ongoing construction of wind farms and the effects of the existing natural gas boom, and you’ve got small communities scrambling to keep up with big development.

“You can call a plumber, and he’ll talk about the boom, if he’s not too busy to answer his phone. It’s kind of cool. It’s what we always wanted,” said Carbon County Commissioner Terry Wieckum.

The combination of fossil fuel and renewable energy development in Carbon County is likely to repeat itself throughout south-central Wyoming to the Powder River Basin. In this huge swath across Wyoming, the energy boom is expanding beyond oil and natural gas to include wind, advanced coal technologies and a resurgence in uranium in-situ mining.

Wieckum said it’s a huge transition for all 10 municipalities in Carbon County. When Interstate 80 was constructed in the 1960s, it drained traffic from U.S. Highway 30, which runs through Hanna and Medicine Bow. Coal mining dwindled to nothing over the years, leaving those communities strapped for cash.

Even Rawlins, the biggest town in Carbon County, went through a period of 11 years when no new houses were built.

“We’re having a housing shortage now, and we have a lot of temporary workers,” Wieckum said. “We are improving our roads. Municipalities are looking at expanding, and we’re seeing more subdivisions. This is a big expansion.”

Wind and methane

Immediately impacting Carbon County this year will be coal-bed methane development in the Atlantic Rim area. Although several legal appeals are pending against the 2,000-well project, a recent court decision cleared the way for work to begin this year.

That means more work for Highland Enterprises, which has already added 150 employees during the past three years, according to company President David Nightingale.

“The biggest thing we’re doing is moving more equipment and personnel east to Rawlins,” Nightingale said.

At the same time drilling begins in the Atlantic Rim, Nightingale’s company is canvassing the county for a good rock source near Seven Mile Hill, where it will pour foundations for 66 wind turbines this year for Rocky Mountain Power.

“Obviously, we’re excited about the Atlantic Rim project getting approved. We’re staffing up in Baggs and Rawlins,” Nightingale said. “There are a lot of opportunities in Carbon County because of its minerals, coal, wind, oil and gas.”

Rocky Mountain Power is also building two wind farms in Converse County, on the reclaimed Dave Johnston coal mine site. The Dave Johnston Wind Energy and Rolling Hills projects each consist of 66 wind turbines.

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Jeff Hymas said the company expects a third wind project in similar size will be located in the area.

The two wind development projects panned for construction in 2008 will bring nearly 200 workers to the area during construction, and cost nearly $400 million.

Coal to liquids

DKRW’s Medicine Bow coal-to-liquids project won regulatory validation in September when it received its Industrial Siting Council permit. DKRW then restructured its plans, signing an agreement with ExxonMobil to use its methanol-to-gasoline technology.

DKRW spokeswoman Kate Perez explained that the company still retains an option with Rentech to use its Fischer Tropsche coal-to-diesel process.

“We will produce gasoline,” Perez said. “But we retain those options.”

The effort includes reopening the Saddleback coal mine near Hanna, which would restart production in 2013. The coal-to-liquids plant will produce up to 20,000 gallons of gasoline when it goes online in 2013, and employ nearly 500 permanent workers.

“We’re working with the county, state, job service officials and the University of Wyoming on training people,” Perez said.

More immediately, the company is working closely with Carbon County officials and municipalities in the area to prepare for the 2,300-plus construction work force.

Energy epicenter

Even with some of the world’s premier wind resources, bountiful coal, natural gas, oil and uranium, the development of Wyoming’s vast energy resources isn’t necessarily an easy prospect.

But Carbon County has much of the existing infrastructure needed to exploit those resources. A transcontinental railroad cuts through the county, as do an interstate, transmission lines and a major natural gas pipeline.

“We’re looking forward to eastern Carbon County being a new epicenter of economic development,” said Tom Schroeder, program principal for the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council.

Schroeder explained that DKRW was originally interested in Carbon County for its massive wind development potential. When it discovered there were mothballed coal mine facilities, DKRW notified its “advanced fuels” division, which came up with the coal-to-liquids project in partnership with coal producer Arch Coal Inc.

Schroeder said what’s emerging in Carbon County is a theme that could be repeated in other areas of Wyoming. With the University of Wyoming’s new School of Energy Resources, industry can use some of the existing infrastructure as a foundation for new energy technologies.

“The proximity of that academic setting with wind, coal plants, and subterranean resources, it’s a golden opportunity for the University of Wyoming,” Schroeder said. “It all ties into the theme of advanced energy study and application.”

By Dustin Bleizeffer
Star-Tribune energy reporter

Casper Star-Tribune

2 January 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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