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Legislature considers a bill to prolong Wyoming’s coal industry, despite a national downturn 

The state may soon have more than a million dollars to put toward any future litigation revolving around coal – an industry that is facing uphill battles nationally to stay alive.

The $1.2 million was originally set aside for previous litigation in 2021 regarding Washington blocking the export of Wyoming’s coal. The case was later denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving Wyoming with the unspent money.

House Bill 69 (HB69) would allow the state to use the money in future lawsuits against any entity, including federal, state and local governments, that does anything to negatively affect Wyoming's coal industry. A similar bill was brought to the legislature in 2022 but failed to make it to Gov. Gordon’s desk.

Randall Luthi, the governor’s energy advisor, said to the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee that this bill is critical for keeping the coal industry alive in the state.

“We're currently under a situation where many in the [Biden] administration believe that the best way to solve their climate issues – our climate issues – is to just end the use of coal,” Luthi said. “We do not believe that – Governor Gordon does not believe that.”

He pointed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ‘Good Neighbor Rule,’ which makes states responsible for pollution traveling downwind to other states. The agency plans to release stricter requirements this year, likely affecting Wyoming.

“Air pollution doesn’t stop at the state line,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release. “This step will help our state partners meet air quality health standards, saving lives and improving public health in smog-affected communities across the United States.”

Luthi said Wyoming plans to challenge these stricter rules in court, and money from HB69 could help.

“We frankly believe that that rule is neither – neither good, nor is it a good neighbor,” he said. “And therefore we're very interested that when the time is right, and should it be necessary, that we have more than enough resources to challenge this in court.”

However, scientists say greenhouse gas emissions need to be significantly cut in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. In the U.S. electric power was the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, with coal being the most carbon-intensive of the electricity sources.

That being said, many utility providers in the U.S. are starting to move away from coal. PacifiCorp, known as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, released an ‘integrated resource plan’ in 2021 that has the company moving away from coal power and incorporating more natural gas, solar, wind and nuclear.

Luthi did acknowledge that climate change is impending, but he said coal can still exist with the incorporation of carbon capture and storage. Some believe this technology will negate coal’s effects on climate change.

Luthi said having the funds to litigate coal plant closures would allow Wyoming to further test the technology.

“For every month, for every year, that we can prolong the use of coal in some of these other power plants, that it makes it even more possible for this technology to become more accepted, more tested, and more economical,” Luthi said.

However, there are already plans or considerations set in place to partially or fully close four coal-fired plants in the state by 2027. In the last 13 years, coal production in the state also fell by about half.

Coal did receive an international boost in 2022 following high natural gas prices resulting from the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creating energy uncertainties in Europe. But, the U.S. Energy Information Administration anticipates the demand to fall back down again in 2023.

Travis Deti, the executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, disagreed.

“Wyoming coal is not collapsing, the demand is there,” he said. “And it's going to remain there.”

Deti said the money from HB69 could also be used to litigate those blocking the export of Wyoming coal.

However, Shannon Anderson, staff attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, pointed out that the language of the bill is too broad. She said lawmakers should choose a specific lawsuit or rule to challenge.

“This is a much broader directive and gives the governor kind of the authority to initiate things, and then he's reporting back,” Anderson said, “versus again, the legislature sort of saying, ‘This is what we want you to spend the money on.’”

The bill was unanimously passed out of committee and was passed on second reading on the House floor. It will now be read for a third time in the House, and if passed, will go to the Senate.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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