Investigation Questions WY Transparency In Promoting Coal Interests Out Of State
3/27: The story has been updated to include Randy Eminger's voice - the executive director of the Energy Policy Network
An investigation published in the Colorado Sun called attention to a connection between the state of Wyoming and an organization that fought against the early closure of two coal-fired generating units in Colorado without disclosing its backing.
The Energy Policy Network (EPN), a coal advocacy organization, has helped preserve the use of coal at the Sooner Power Plant in Oklahoma and has worked in Texas and Arkansas to protect coal generation; Texas is a significant consumer of Powder River Basin coal.
In a tax filing , the group said its engaged with 23 states to "education, provide support and assistance with regard to energy and utility regulatory policy issues."
Two years ago, the group was active in opposing the utility Xcel Energy's proposal to end the Comanche Station's.
The Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog organization, found EPN's opposition didn't disclose its backing from Wyoming and believed the group was not direct in its opposition. The primary opponent to Xcel Energy's proposal was a group called the Coalition of Ratepayers , which its website identifies as a subsidiary of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think-tank. The group identifies as "a Colorado non-profit concerned with issues impacting small business and residential ratepayers that otherwise have no advocate and no voice."
The Energy and Policy Institute drew a connection to the lead attorney for the Coalition of Ratepayers as someone working with EPN as well.
But Randy Eminger, executor director of EPN, said his group was just part of a broader coalition to oppose the Xcel's proposal.
"[The article] tried to make it sound like we were hiding behind the ratepayers' coalition, but that's not the situation at all. It was basically the fact that we have to join forces to have the funds and really a broad-based coalition has more credibility," Eminger said, adding a number of small businesses were involved in the effort.
He said the Independence Institute was the primary driver of the opposition and that EPN contributed about 15 to 20 percent to the cause.
The Colorado Sun article published 2017 tax filings procured by the Energy and Policy Institute showing Wyoming contributed $150,000 to EPN that year. The Wyoming Infrastructure Authority donated $100,000; Campbell County $60,000. Peabody and Cloud Peak Energy also donated.
"If the state of Wyoming wants to make a case to Colorado ratepayers and our regulators that we should keep coal plants on line for longer... they're welcome to make that argument," said Joe Smyth, a researcher for the Energy and Policy Institute. "But hiding their role by funneling money to this group suggests that they haven't been pursuing a sort of open and transparent argument."
Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, said Wyoming has never hidden its involvement with the Energy Policy Network and that it's funds and disclosure were both completely legal.
"I just don't see this as being anything nefarious or done behind closed doors," Begger said. "It is always there to see who does what, and I guess I don't know, how much more transparent the state could be outside of talking about it in public hearings? Are we supposed to run ads?"
EPN has been discussed in the annual appropriations process; the group was also a topic of conversation at a November 2018 committee meeting. EPN has also spoken to Campbell County officials at a public hearing.
State support for the organization stemmed from a budget footnote in 2014 that allocated one million dollars to develop Wyoming's energy strategy initiatives.
"Coordination of efforts and strategies to identify and develop opportunities to improve Wyoming's access to and growth in domestic and international markets for natural gas, oil, coal, uranium, power, manufacturing, tourism and other commodities and products. This effort shall include: Taking actions to improve access to markets and address related regulatory, logistic and infrastructure concerns," the budget bill read.
Begger said EPN is a barebones effort to balance the discussion against pressure from environmental groups like the Sierra Club and it's Beyond Coal Campaign.
"We saw those NGOs… just dive bombing these local Public Service Commission's with their agenda to close down plants early," he said. "The directive is: we want you to use [EPN's] expertise to recognize those plants that have the greatest impact to the State of Wyoming through tons and tons of coal mines and jobs and tax revenue, and then participate."
Begger said it's been a solid return on investment: the state spends about $200,000/year to save $40 million/year in tax revenue per his calculations.
The $1 million allocated in 2014 has also been used to fund Wyoming legislators visit to coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, the state spent an additional $50,000 to support EPN, according to Beggar.
In response to her organization being named, Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club's Wyoming Chapter, said Wyoming should put its limited resources elsewhere.
"No amount of lobbying pressure by Wyoming is going to convince regulators in other states to choose expensive coal power over affordable clean energy. Instead of continuing to waste our money trying, Wyoming should be investing our limited resources right now in economic transition efforts that chart a new path forward for the state," she said.
Wilbert said she's heard Randy Eminger, the executor director of EPN, give a presentation at the Wyoming Energy Forum a year ago.
Last March, County 17 reported Eminger asked the Campbell County council for contributions to aid in the fight for coal. The article found EPN was not willing to disclose its donors at the time.
Geno Palazzari, communications manager for the city of Gillette, said Eminger has met with Gillette officials, but the city has never provided funding. The city was aware of the state's financial support of EPN.
EPN's Eminger said the group is not currently working on any project's right now.