John Bebow, the executive director of The Center For Michigan and a former reporter for the Detroit News and Chicago Tribune, reports in his weekly update that M and M Energy, a Florida-based energy development company, has proposed building a multi-billion dollar “polygeneration” coal-fired electric generating station on the site of a shuttered oil refinery in Alma. The company presented its plan to the state Senate Energy Committee in mid-April and has been busy shopping the idea in and out of Michigan.
What attracts the attention of the fossil fuel industry and its champions in the capital markets is the trifecta that M and M Energy promises to its supporters. First, the company asserts it is building a “clean” coal generating station that uses Conoco Phillips technology to heat to 1900 degrees Fahrenheit and turn coal, an abundant all-American resource, into a gas. Second, the plant will then pump the dangerous byproducts of the heating and power generation process, particularly sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, deep into the earth. And third, get this, those gases will have the effect of pressurizing played out liquid fossil fuel reservoirs and enable Michigan to recover billions of dollars worth of oil that would have been lost. The federal Department of Energy published a report on what it called “Co2 enhanced oil recovery” last year.
I understand why mid-Michigan job seekers and allied business owners could get excited about such a proposal. Investments of the magnitude that M and M Energy proposes aren’t made in this state very often. It’s also easy to see how Michigan’s oil and gas industry would be geeked about allying themselves with a coal-fired utility. But what are the consequences to electricity prices, for one, and the safety of underground CO2 storage chambers for another. Moreover, the idea of perpetuating fossil fuel combustion in an era of global climate change that has already harmed the state’s snow sports industry and appears to be playing havoc with Great Lakes water levels, isn’t so appetizing either.
What’s most clear at this point is that energy is the industrial sector that business and political leaders are looking to first to rebuild Michigan’s economic competitiveness. Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has used her State of the State address each of the last three years to tout the usefulness of encouraging a research and production capacity for ethanol and other alternative energies as a competitive advantage.
She and the state are making a bit of progress, but there are very big questions about ethanol as a useful fuel. The number of BTUs that go into making a gallon of ethanol is only slightly less than the number of BTUs that same gallon produces.
Meanwhile a much more significant and worrisome development is the number of big coal-fired electric generating stations planned for Michigan. Along with M and M Energy’s proposal, two more convetnional coal-fired plants are planned for Rogers City and Midland. Several others are in the discussion stage and have not been publicly announced by state utilities.
It’s hard to overstate what is obvious. Powering Michigan’s 21st century economy with a dirty 18th century fuel source is an epic mismatch that will ensure that Michigan’s economic slide will continue. In a new century that prizes clean, efficient, environmentally-sensitive business practices, and the jobs that come with that kind of transformation, it’s hard to fathom how burning coal advances state prospects.