THE BUZZ: Coalicious

By on August 11, 2015

Wyoming struggles with coal’s bleak future


‘King Coal’ is endangered but Wyoming politicos wont give it up without a fight. (Photo: Wyofile)

[An earlier version of this article stated that the Democratic National Party had issued a statement condemning Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The DNC did not in fact issue a statement against the CPP. – Ed.]

“This Administration is fixated on killing coal without consideration of the consequences or lack of non-political benefits,” Sen. Mike Enzi said regarding President Barrack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which rolled out last Monday.

Enzi’s response was part of immediate and predictable saber rattling from Wyoming delegates bent on protecting Wyoming’s leading revenue stream extravagantly known as “King Coal.” Enzi is joined by fellow U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis and Gov. Matt Mead – all Republicans – in staunch opposition to new regulations that could very well ring the death knell for coal in the Cowboy State.

Just say no

The Clean Power Plan aims to reduce carbon emissions by a third over the next 15 years. While it allows each state some flexibility on how it chooses to implement the policy, the writing is on the wall: coal burning is detrimental and its future is bleak.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal agency often targeted by Wyoming leadership, backs the plan. Barrasso said the strategy would mandate massive new red tape, thrust job-crushing regulations on American energy producers, and amounted to little more than a “legacy-seeking President choosing to make an end run around Congress rivaling Obamacare.”

“The President is forging ahead with a rule that will undermine electric reliability, disadvantage U.S. manufacturing, destroy coal jobs and force American families to pay more for electricity,” he said. “[And] governors know that despite the administration’s promise of flexibility, their states simply cannot comply with this unrealistic proposal—and they shouldn’t have to. This rule will face significant challenges in court and states are right to reject it.”

Most analysts do believe CPP is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court after years of expected litigation. But with coal use already on the decline in the U.S. and export options to China hung up on a Pacific Northwest transportation line, does Wyoming have a Plan B?

No stranger to opposing federal government – Wyoming has 30 active lawsuits against the feds – state leaders may be in danger of putting all their energy eggs in one basket, blindly ignoring the writing on the wall and leading the state into a forced march against Washington with no “out” plan.

Mead dug in his heels fighting Obama’s Affordable Care Act until it was obvious it would hold up in court. By the time the governor changed his tune, openly rooting for Obamacare, it was plain the state had done little to make alternative healthcare options available to its citizens. Is Mead repeating that dogmatic stubbornness?

“The Clean Power Plan is scientifically flawed and if implemented will not achieve minimum reductions. It is in fact damaging – not just to Wyoming, but the nation,” Mead said in a statement to the press. “I will continue to fight regulations that are fundamentally bad for Wyoming and exceed the regulatory authority of the federal government.”

How bad is bad?

Wyoming stands to feel the pain more than any other state. Coal generated 90 percent of Wyoming’s power in 2013. The U.S. uses coal for 40 percent of its energy needs with Wyoming supplying nearly 40 percent of the country’s coal consumption – more than triple that of the next highest producer, West Virginia. In fact, nearly all of Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Campbell County. Coal mining accounts for 11 percent of the state’s revenue with the industry supporting an estimated 17,000 jobs.

The effects of CPP have already been felt, statewide. Arch Coal, operator of the prolific Black Thunder mine near Wright, Wyoming, reported a net loss of $168 million for the second quarter of 2015. Cloud Peak Energy dropped $53 million in the same three-month period. Peabody Energy Corp. runs three Powder River Basin mines. It reported a $1 billion loss in the second quarter. And Alpha, the fourth largest coal miner in the world, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Obama blowback

Wyoming politicians, along with most Republicans and some Democrats in the House and Senate, are fighting CPP. They believe the mandate unfairly singles out coal as the bad guy in global warming, and they fear for the state’s economic future where mineral extractions go a long way to fund education, construction and more.

Enzi, for one, won’t have it.

“The EPA is decimating our most reliable source of energy and in turn destroying Wyoming jobs, raising electricity prices and hurting our economy,” the senior Senator from Wyoming said. “Under President Obama’s direction, we are seeing the EPA take a whole new disrespect for the rights of states. This plan relies on a bad analysis that fails to look at the cost properly in the future.”

Meanwhile, Barrasso co-sponsored a bipartisan bill back in May designed to roll back CPP. The Affordable Reliable Energy Now Act (ARENA) would introduce measures that would require the EPA to regularly and statistically gauge the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal, along with other stipulations.

Lummis called the new EPA regulations “worthless” during a whistle-stop tour of Wyoming where she spoke at a pro-mining rally last July.

“This administration would have you believe it’s either a clean environment or coal,” Lummis told a crowd of enthusiastic supporters. “These new EPA regulations are worthless in solving climate change. And what for? For what purpose? It’s a false choice, Mr. President. It’s a false choice [EPA administrator] Gina McCarthy. Go to those thousands of Americans who are losing their jobs over this ridiculous false choice and look them in the face and tell them why.”

Winds of change

Wyoming is indeed blessed with millennia-old dinosaur juice but the state is also well situated to adapt to change. In addition to the vast wealth of energy underground, the state has no shortage of fashionable renewable resources above terra firma like wind and solar power. Efforts have been made by state officials to create an energy grid and other infrastructure designed to harness, store or transport wind and sun energy sources, including a developing deal with California to share technologies and power.

Many environmentalists, “greenies,” and other conservationist-minded groups are in unison proclaiming the CPP as the perfect impetus to shove Wyoming into the future of energy extraction.

“It’s disappointing our elected representatives are clinging desperately to a dying industry and the dirty energy economy of the past,” said Craig Benjamin, executive director for Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “It’s time Wyoming started leading the charge toward the clean energy economy of the future.” The Alliance will host a public meeting on the future of Wyoming’s energy strategy this week with Mead.

Although Mead is toeing party and state lines, his office has been proactive in seeking alternative energy sources. Wyoming became the first state in the nation to develop a comprehensive energy strategy with the release of the action plan, Leading the Charge.

Mead hopes to continue building on those efforts. “The past two years have seen many successes and we want to build on them,” he said. “The purpose of these meetings is to review existing initiatives, to identify additional initiatives in order to support energy development, balanced with sound environmental stewardship.”

Alicia Cox, executive director for the Yellowstone-Teton Clean Energy Coalition, said CPP offers flexibility for states to meet the goal and an opportunity for innovation that is both meaningful and strategic for Wyoming. “The goal aligns with the forward-thinking conservation ethic of our region by providing real progress toward the mitigation of climate change impacts on this extraordinary ecosystem,” Cox said.

Switching to sustainable energy sources might mean significant capital investments at first, but a trend away from fossil fuels and toward wind, hydro, solar and biofuels is making headway.

According to a REN21 2014 report, renewable energy sources contributed 19 percent to global energy consumption and 22 percent to electricity generation in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Coal, meanwhile, is on life support, at its lowest level in two decades. When Obama took office, coal accounted for half the country’s electricity. The EPA estimates it will be down to 35 percent by the end of this year.

A Duke University study found that as the coal industry lost 49,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012, the solar and wind industry gained 79,000 jobs. Many Republican politicians, including those from Wyoming, rage against the machine while preparing for an altered future.

In places where wind blows harder than GOP rhetoric – states like Iowa, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Kansas – billions in upgrades have been spent to the point that an average 25 percent of those states’ energy production comes from wind. Where sun shines, states like Texas and Arizona are scrambling to get ahead of the curve and reap the rays.

Jackson town officials have done their part quitting fossil fuels. The town runs on 100 percent certified green power from Lower Valley’s Strawberry Creek hydro facility.  Five approved electric vehicle charging stations are also in place throughout town.

JH Conservation Alliance public meeting with Gov. Matt Mead is 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., Thursday at the Teton County Library Ordway Auditorium.

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