Interview with Mr. Jim Ford

Jim Ford, founder of Waypoints Wyoming LLC

Jim Ford is the founder of Waypoints Wyoming LLC. He has multiple advanced degrees from the School of Hard Knocks. He has experience of about fifteen years in upstream oil and gas operations, primarily CBM (coal bed methane) in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. He also carries experience in O&G services in trucking and rail transload terminals, plus manufacturing of activated carbon from PRB coals.

Summarize your company business and current projects you are involved in.

“Waypoints Wyoming provides strategic advisory services in the space around low carbon intensity energy and materials. Wyoming, UWYO, Campbell County, City of Gillette are currently developing a world-class basis, proving grounds to foster research into and demonstration of the technologies needed for the low carbon solutions that society and markets demand. The ‘carbon valley’ concept ties O&G production, coal mining, CCUS, electricity generation, coal-to-products, CO2 transportation, and EOR.”

Tell us a bit about your prestigious company, “Waypoints Wyoming” please, especially the beginning years and now.

“Waypoints Wyoming was formed in 2019 to specifically assist the local government of Campbell County Wyoming, in developing and promoting a vision for the continued utilization of coal, natural gas, and oil in a CO2-constrained future. 

Over the last 2 ½ years Waypoints’ scope has expanded to include work with other government entities, economic development groups, universities, and national labs.  We provide advisory services to private industries to promote the development of advanced carbon technologies and deployment of the same into the commercial space.  Some of the areas where we do our best work include assisting project developers in obtaining a social license to operate, industrial siting, environmental assessment and regulatory permitting, technical assistance in process refinements, and strategic planning for integration of their technologies into the marketplace.

Individuals and markets are issuing separate but related calls for decarbonization of the transportation sector – in favor of electrified vehicles, and decarbonization of the industrial and electricity generation sectors – particularly coal-fired generation.  While these aims are not contradictory on their face, pursuing them simultaneously on a global scale surely compounds the difficulty.  I believe that there is a major disconnect between the societal demands for the reduction of CO2 emissions, the growing need for useful forms of energy, and the state of available technologies and infrastructure needed to deploy solutions at an industrial scale.  At Waypoints, we seek to bridge those gaps with support for commercially viable projects that can help provide those solutions.”

What do you think are the primary needs of society and the market with respect to low carbon intensity energy and materials?

“I think that this question should be taken in two parts:

The first need of any society with respect to energy is to have access to abundant, reliable, and affordable sources of energy; this improves the human condition such that the members of that society can elevate their thinking and actions beyond the basic requirements of sufficient food, clean water, and protection from the elements.  Energy provides the foundation for the mechanisms, methods, and materials to accomplish these things.  

The second is the natural result of what follows once these basic needs are met; namely that healthy and wealthy people have the capacity to address the environmental issues of responsible resource utilization and elimination of wastes and pollution (including a focus on the creation of methods to produce low carbon intensity forms of energy, materials, and chemicals). 

Much of the world today finds itself at this second phase by having had the luxury of several generations of energy abundance.  The opportunity exists now for the developing world to simultaneously accomplish both steps by employing CCUS strategies for sensible utilization of coal, oil, and gas along with nuclear and other sources of renewable energy.”

We see the acronyms CCS and CCUS often now. What is the process followed for CO2 capture and sequestration?  How can CO2 be utilized after it is captured?

“The very first IPCC Assessment Report in 1990 identified CO2 capture and sequestration as an important tool in accomplishing its goals, and has done so consistently now, for over 30 years!

CCS typically requires three major steps:

  • capturing CO2 at the source,
  • conditioning it for transportation, and,
  • then injecting it through wells specially engineered and permitted into deep geologic formations at a carefully selected and safe sites, where it is permanently stored.

At industrial process facilities such as coal and natural-gas-fired power plants, steel mills, cement plants, and refineries, separation of the CO2 from other gases (such as nitrogen and water vapor) takes place using solvents or membranes.  Once separated, the CO2 is compressed and transported via pipelines, trucks, ships, or other methods to a suitable site for geological storage.  The CO2 is then injected into deep underground rock formations, usually at depths exceeding 3,000 feet or more.

There are immense opportunities for utilization of CO2 once it has been captured.  When injected into depleted oil reservoirs, reserves that would otherwise be left behind can be recovered without drilling new wells or need for significant new infrastructure additions.  Much of the CO2 injected for this use remains permanently in the rock, so the oil produced in this manner has an overall lower carbon intensity when compared to traditional methods.  CO2 is also being utilized in engineered concretes and fuel production.”  

Carbon SAFE Wyoming: Study area

Where can all of this be deployed in the first place? 

“I am confident that the Powder River Basin region of Wyoming possesses all the attributes necessary to demonstrate to the world that a transition to low CO2 intensity production of electricity, fuels, chemicals, and materials from coal, oil, and natural gas is not only possible but can be fairly profitable too! We have the right combination of vision, political will at all levels, access to tremendous natural resources, and an existing capacity for production and transportation of minerals and energy that is second to none. Our mining, O&G, power generation, industrial manufacturing, and service sectors have the expertise to put the ideas into practice at the plant and in the field level both.

Under the leadership of the Wyoming Energy Authority, UWYO School of Energy Resources, and Energy Capital Economic Development, three significant projects are taking root in Campbell County. These are in a collaborative effort to be locally known as the “Carbon Valley” initiative.  Together we are focusing on three pathways right now that can offer set solutions to responsibly address CO2 in the energy sector and utilization of carbon-based natural resources in novel ways.

The Wyoming Integrated Test Center, ITC, (https://www.wyomingitc.org/) opened at the Basin Electric Dry Fork Station to provide space for researchers to test Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Sequestration (CCUS) technologies using actual coal-based flue gas.  The research will look at taking flue gas and turning it into a marketable commodity. It will lead to new opportunities in petrochemicals as well as other commercial uses of carbon dioxide. Research at the facility will help ensure the viability of the coal industry, which supports jobs, local and state economies and help to keep electricity prices low for millions of people around the globe.  The ITC is one of a handful of such facilities around the world and only the second one in the United States. While many carbon capture technologies are being developed and studied in laboratory settings, ITC is one of the few research and testing facilities at an operating coal-fired powered plant. Laboratories cannot mimic the real-world conditions of a functioning coal-fired power plant. ITC allows for real-world testing at an active power plant and alleviates typical concerns over being able to transfer technology efficiently from a lab to a plant.

The Wyoming Carbon Storage Assurance Facility Enterprise project, known as CarbonSAFE for short, involves a team of University of Wyoming scientists and industry professionals investigating how to permanently store carbon dioxide emitted from coal-based electricity generation facilities into deep geologic formations underground. The goal is to demonstrate safe and secure geologic CO2 storage and eventually commercialize large-scale subsurface storage near Dry Fork Station. Upon project completion, the team will have advanced the science of carbon capture and storage – with beneficiaries ranging from the U.S. Department of Energy to the coal and utility industries. In fall 2021, researchers will begin drilling a second CO2 test well to finalize the geologic characterization and collect baseline microseismic measurements. Earlier this year, a baseline CO2 monitoring network was installed to scan levels in the soil.

Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC), a 5,500-square-foot coal commercialization facility, broke ground in June 2021 in Gillette. The 9.5-acre site will be home to companies and researchers developing commodities like asphalt, graphene, graphite, agricultural char, carbon fiber, and more – using coal and coal byproducts. The state-of-the-art WyIC will feature two buildings and seven demonstration sites for pilot plants, for private companies and researchers to advance coal-to-product and rare earth element processes. Tenants at WyIC will focus on evaluating the commercial viability of high-value nonfuel, low- or zero-emissions products made from coal and extracting pivotal rare earth elements found in the fly ash of coal burned at local power plants. The WyIC’s 4,000-square-foot building will provide office, lab, and workspace for tenants – while a 1,500-square-foot building will be used to handle raw materials. The facility is locally owned and operated by Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED).

These three projects are together providing for a solid foundation for research and pre-commercial demonstrations of methods that can be deployed at scale in NE Wyoming.”

Oil Rich powder river basin

Who are the main competitors of Waypoints Wyoming and how do they challenge Waypoints Wyoming? 

“The major challenges that Waypoints faces are not from competitors in the arena…in fact, we welcome collaboration with others that share a common vision! There are two real challenges. That I consistently observe:  the first is that many groups, including some politicians and environmental advocacy organizations, have turned away from supporting any efforts to find responsible continued utilization of coal, even though methods exist to address the atmospheric emission.  I feel that we here in the US can and will find solutions, for coal, that will become the standard in those parts of the world where coal use continues to increase. Ignoring coal and the subsequent challenges it faces will not help to solve any problems where it is used irresponsibly.  

The second challenge is that many young people have been instilled with such a negative view of coal, oil, and gas that they believe that the world must simply do without it.  We need to promote educational pursuits in engineering, chemistry, and environmental sciences that develop the disciplines to solve problems rather than just turn away from the challenges.”

Please throw some light on your company’s key findings and the biggest accomplishments so far.

“Waypoints has the privilege of providing field-level operational support for the Integrated Test Center.  This gives us the opportunity to engage with leading universities and private developers in CCUS while doing our part to support the investment of the project partners.  

One of the most exciting efforts right now is our work with a consortium of private researchers and industrial developers in conceptual design for an integrated refinery model utilizing coal as a crude feedstock.       

I have been pleasantly surprised to find that there are investors out there for real low-carbon solutions that can result in tangible projects.  Much of the “greenwashing” that has been prevalent seems to be being recognized for what it is, disingenuous and serving only as feel-good statements that have no actual effect.”   

In your opinion, what could be the best non-traditional use for coal?

“In the US and throughout the world, nearly all coal is used for steam power generation, though China is seeing a significant move toward fuels and chemicals production too.  The non-thermal possibilities for coal are tremendous using technologies that are available today, but the last 100 years have shown us that coal has only been utilized outside the boiler when there is an absence of available petroleum and domestic security strategy falls back on coal reserves.  Ultimately, I think that the abundance of coal and its secure access is what will lead to a resurgence.  Coal is having a hard time right now, particularly in the United States, competing against natural gas in the electricity generation sector, and coal has consistently missed the price point for gasification-based fuels when compared to petroleum.  I believe that some of the front runners for coal-based products will be high-performance asphalts, BTEX range chemicals, and high fixed carbon solids like activated carbon and graphite. I think that one of the most exciting prospects in the production of the precursors for low-cost carbon fibers from coal.” 

Where do you see the rare earth elements extraction standing, 20 years down the line? 

“One very important fact to understand about rare earth elements is that they are not all that rare.  REE’s are common across all areas of the world, but in low concentrations…what is rare is to find them in high concentrations that justify mining, extraction, and concentration using today’s methods.  The global REE landscape came to be dominated by China (and still is today) due to the corporate industry making almost every supply chain decision over the last 30+ years primarily based on near-term economics.  Recent years have seen some diversity of supply and processing capacity due to many nations having concern about maintaining both defense and manufacturing security.  I believe the next major changes in REE supply chain will be driven by ESG focused investing that will require mining and processing methods to improve to conform to those environmental and social ideals.  Further down the line, I foresee the implementation of circular economy of REE containing materials that recycles continually after the initial product manufacture and that adds significantly to quantities that are produced in primary mining efforts.”

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