Tom Keyser

the keyser file

Clean Future Envisioned for Under-exploited Coal Reserves


Here's a heads-up for first-year engineering students: Consider King Coal. It's not the environmental tyrant some people portray it as.

The message comes courtesy of Paul Clark, P.Eng., who admits a moderate bias.

Based in Calgary, Mr. Clark is director of fuel supply for TransAlta, as well as a member of an industry panel dedicated to bringing more mining engineers into the professional fold. In fact the committee has helped Engineering Dean Dr. David Lynch, P.Eng., breathe new life into the University of Alberta's School of Mining and Petroleum Engineering.

Rescued from the brink of extinction, the school now boasts six full-time faculty and a graduation rate of 20 potential mining engineers a year. Mr. Clark and his industry colleagues hope that number doubles before many more years roll by.

“Universities across North America are producing about half the mining engineers that they did as recently as 10 years ago,” says Mr. Clark, whose own fascination with coal was fuelled during his undergrad and post-grad days at the University of Alaska.

“We're on the upside of a commodity boom and everyone connected with the industry is going to need these graduates.”

Coal on Campus
Right about the time The PEGG lands in your mailbox, Mr. Clark's committee members will be co-hosting an on-campus information evening at the U of A in conjunction with the mining school. Chaired by Syncrude President and COO Jim Carter, P.Eng., the panel is known as the Mineral Industry Advisory Committee.

The evening's purpose is to sell first-year students on the upside of a career in mining engineering. And Mr. Clark dangles a carrot that promises much more than job security.

Young engineers entering the field will help further existing technologies in the move towards increasingly safe, emissions-free use of the amorphous carbon.

Who says so? Mr. Clark, among others.

And he has a wealth of experience and knowledge to back his pitch for coal — a resource that represents, by the way, 81 per cent of North America's known hydrocarbon reserves.

Reclamation Record
For the benefit of skeptics, Mr. Clark argues that TransAlta, for one, has been successfully cleaning up its extraction sites for decades.

“We have the reclamation science pretty much nailed,” he says, pointing to an aerial shot of the 365-hectare Wabamun Whitewood Conservation Properties, west of Edmonton. Almost 175 hectares of the region represents land reclaimed from TransAlta's open-pit Whitewood coal mine.

“All that green is the reclamation site,” he explains. “When you visit this area, it looks no different from the rest of the landscape. It contains lakes, wildlife and farming areas.”

Mr. Clark's days and evenings are also consumed by his work with the Canadian Clean Power Coalition, chaired by former provincial treasurer Jim Dinning.

A Clean Coal Future
Mr. Clark shares Mr. Dinning's excitement about the future of “clean” coal, one of North America's great unexploited resources.

“My vision is similar to Jim's — a fully integrated energy strategy for Alberta,” Mr. Clark elaborates.
At the heart of the concept is a clean-coal “gasification” plant for Alberta, something Mr. Clark would love to see up and running within the next decade, if not sooner.

“We (the clean power coalition) are completing our technology studies and now we're building a business case. We need to prove that such a facility can be economically viable,” he says.

For the uninitiated, Mr. Clark describes gasification as a proven process for turning coal and certain waste hydrocarbons into a synthetic gas (or syngas) that's relatively low in BTUs but rich in hydrogen.

Under the terms of Mr. Clark's “integrated” vision, a multitude of Alberta industries would be able to subsist on such synthetic gas. These include fertilizer plants, petrochemical plants, electrical power plants and refineries.

Hydrogen created by the process could also be captured for use in upgrading crude or bitumen. Meanwhile, byproducts of gasification include a pure grade of carbon dioxide, which is too commercially valuable to discard.

Mr. Clark says the CO2 can be injected beneath the Earth's surface, used to displace coalbed methane from coal seams and drive it to the surface. The remaining CO2 can be safely stored underground in drained reservoirs of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin.

Similarly, that same pure grade of CO2 can be dissolved in certain heavy oil deposits to enhance currently modest recovery rates of 25 to 30 per cent.

Sounds like a win-win situation. Not to mention a potentially intriguing career path for bright young engineers.

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Freelance Columnist