Advocates for lignite development in Arkansas say it could be a boon similar to the natural gas renaissance seen in the state, but environmentalists rank their concerns on par with recent legal battles regarding coal-based energy.
Lignite, a low-grade form of coal, can be found in Arkansas’ underground throughout a triangular region from Texarkana to Crossett to Benton. Researchers suggest Arkansas has around 4 billion recoverable tons of lignite available for surface mining. Once it is mined, lignite can be burned to make electricity, and new technology shows promise that lignite can be used in developing synthetic fuels.
All of this could provide a new energy source as America continues its decades-long rhetoric of removing its dependence on foreign oil.
However, the quality of Arkansas’ lignite quality has been a guarded source of speculation. Private companies have not quickly jumped into the region to explore lignite mining like they have in neighboring states, such as Texas and Mississippi.
Private industry reticence has been a barrier to the dedication of state resources to jump-start lignite mining, while high-profile litigation has likely spooked investors.
One of the biggest proponents of lignite development in Arkansas is Lt. Gov. Mark Darr (R). He used a recent bi-monthly column to tout lignite’s potential in Arkansas.
“South Arkansas needs jobs. We can do better economically in this state, but we must have the will to do what is needed,” Darr said. “Mississippi, Texas, and North Dakota all currently mine their lignite resources and have reaped the economic benefits of doing so. Why shouldn’t we? We have a domestic source of energy available and we need to promote it.”
Darr sees the potential to build a lignite micro-economy in south Arkansas where the harvested product is processed by mini-refineries, then shipped as oil to larger facilities for conversion to fuel or other chemicals. To an extent, he sees a replica of the north Arkansas surge generated by the Fayetteville Shale play.
“Arkansas has moved forward in recent years thanks to the natural gas industry and its involvement in the Fayetteville Shale. This has created economic opportunities in north-central Arkansas for thousands of people. I want to see a similar economic boom in south Arkansas,” he said.
State Representatives and Senators have also advocated for more development of lignite regions in the southern half of the state. Southern Arkansas University has secured federal funds to support a lignite research center at its Camden campus.
SOUND THE ALARM
Environmentalists say “not so fast.”
Glenn Hooks, senior campaign manager for the Sierra Club in Arkansas, warns that lignite development in Arkansas would be an ecological disaster and his group would certainly be one of several to oppose advancing the effort.
“While coal is the dirtiest fuel source around, lignite is the dirtiest type of coal,” Hooks tells Talk Business.
He highlights a Sierra Club-funded study that draws on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. Geological Survey data.
“Proposals to strip mine The Natural State for the single dirtiest fuel source available should give us all pause, especially on top of the environmental problems caused by gas fracking. Arkansas should invest in clean energy jobs for our people, not jobs that destroy our lands and pollute our resources,” Hooks said.
The Sierra Club and other environmentally active groups were largely successful in a recent high-profile legal battle regarding the $1.7 billion coal-powered John Turk electricity plant in southwest Arkansas. The plant will go forward, but with major concessions. SWEPCO, the power company with majority ownership in Turk, settled long-running litigation with a commitment to utilize renewable energy resources.
Business observers speculate the long-lasting legal challenge may be behind private investors taking a less active role in pursuing Arkansas lignite deposits.
“Sierra Club is always willing to explore proposals that benefit the environment and protect public health. Coal mining has historically been monumentally harmful to both of these areas. We look forward to discussions with the coal industry about its plans,” Hooks added.
Darr has toured lignite mines in Mississippi. He contends lignite mining can lead to environmental restoration if done properly and he says he’d be open to a dialogue on the subject as long as it led to action and jobs.
“I’m interested in dialogue. We can talk all day long, but in this state we’ve talked about it enough. At the end of the talk, bring a shovel and let’s dig something up,” Darr said in a follow-up interview. “People need to pay their rent and their mortgage and put braces on their kids’ teeth.”
Gov. Mike Beebe (D) has been cooler to lignite prospects than Darr. The Governor is looking for more private investment and continues to promote another south Arkansas resource — biomass, or by-products from timber and agricultural processes — as a fuel alternative.
Darr says he’s not deterred by the lack of private investment.
“The private investment pause, or lack of interest, is because there hasn’t been an administration in our statehouse government here who has really backed it,” Darr added. “We can’t just keep doing the same-ole, same-ole. We have something in the ground here that we can put people to work in.”