A Q&A with the Powder River Basin Resource Council on energy bills that are up for debate
The Wyoming legislature is already halfway through. Lawmakers started out considering more than 500 bills, but there were a lot of deadlines this past week and only about half of those bills are still alive.
Being that Wyoming is the energy state, a lot of the legislation touches on how the state will manage and develop its energy industry, including more traditional sources, like coal, oil and natural gas, and renewables, like nuclear, rare earth minerals, wind and solar.
Wyoming Public Radio’s energy reporter Caitlin Tan recently was at the Capitol in Cheyenne. She sat down with a couple people from energy advocacy groups that represent different schools of thought on Wyoming energy. To hear the other interview with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming click here.
This interview is with Shannon Anderson, who is the staff attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. The group advocates for the conservation of Wyoming’s landscape and minerals and often supports renewable energy projects.
Editor’s note: This story has been lightly edited for clarity.
Caitlin Tan: Shannon, how has the session been going so far? We're about halfway through.
Shannon Anderson: So it's always a big year for energy in Wyoming. And there's a number of bills this year that cover everything from rooftop solar – so how you generate power yourself at your home or your business – to our very large coal plants. So everything from small scale energy to large scale, and everything in between. There's a lot of interesting topics that are coming forward with electric vehicles and fossil fuels in general, and where the state puts their money and how they regulate things. So it's been an interesting year so far.
CT: There's some bills looking at solar, as you mentioned, but also bills looking at rare earth mineral mining, and then also more traditional sources of energy, like coal plants, and providing funding for litigation with coal plants to keep them alive. Do you feel like that's actually kind of representative of the energy landscape in Wyoming right now?
SA: Yeah, I think so. With energy, you often hear the phrase, ‘All of the above.’ That's pretty much where we are as a state. There's a lot coming at us really quick, with hydrogen, rare earth mining, electric vehicles.
And I think legislators are kind of grasping at how we deal with all of that, from a regulatory standpoint – from a taxation standpoint. One of the big bills, we're not working on it as an organization because we stay out of it, but one of the bigger bills is whether or not we want to tax solar, and particularly the generation from solar energy on the larger scale.
Lots of big questions about what kind of energy we want to have in the state, how we regulate it, how we tax it, and what the public benefits of that energy really are.
CT: Do you think by the end of this session, based on which bills are passed, we will have a little bit more clearer vision of what Wyoming's energy future might look like?
SA: I think so. One of the biggest issues is, what do we do with these coal plants that we have in the state? And is there a future for them beyond the life envisioned by the utility that operates them currently? And there's a fairly controversial bill moving forward that deals with that. And there's other issues with rare earth mining and seeing what happens with a state regulatory approach to some of that.
But there's also some pieces that have already died, and didn’t move forward, like the electric vehicle bill. So there's some open ended questions that legislators are going to have to deal with in the future.
CT: Is there a bill or two that you're particularly watching that maybe you could explain in a little more detail for listeners, and maybe why they should care?
SA: So there's one, and you reported on it earlier in the session, it's called the coal litigation fund bill. And this one is sort of interesting, because there was a pot of money set aside two sessions ago, $1.2 million, which,you think, ‘Okay, $1.2 million.’ But that's actually more than most agency budgets of the state. So it's a large sum of money, actually. And it's been set aside specifically for litigation to defend our coal industry.
The original vision was really about coal export facilities. So Wyoming was going to sue the state of Washington – this was the grand plan. And then the company that wanted to build a port in Washington went bankrupt, and so there was no need to sue the state of Washington, but we still have that $1.2 million. And so now, the question is, ‘What do we do with that money?’ And there's a proposal to expand it [the uses for the money], but really it's kind of emblematic of again – this is money set aside to defend the coal industry, when it could be used for other things [in the] state government.
CT: Is there a world in which that money could go towards other sources of energy potentially, like a renewable energy project?
SA: It could be used for anything else. I mean, what the legislature would do is let that fund kind of expire and sunset and go away. And then that money goes back to the general fund, which is how we fund state government, and it could be used for any number of purposes.
Speaking of renewable energy funding, there is a provision of the state budget that we've been watching some of the budget amendments on – that allows for a matching fund essentially for energy projects. Solar and wind are specifically included in that pot of money, which we hope is going to be exciting particularly for municipal governments that have been building a lot of smaller scale renewable energy projects to power public buildings, which keeps taxes low for communities and power bills low for municipal governments. So we're excited about that. There's also a lot of money for other kinds of energy projects in that fund that we're maybe less excited about. But the renewable stuff I think is exciting. And hopefully, there's a lot of interest and opportunity for the state going forward.
CT: And then just generally speaking, what would you think the everyday person should be looking out for going forward? I guess, just in this year, the near future?
SA: You always say you never have a crystal ball in terms of energy. It is totally true. But I think what we're going to see nationally, which impacts Wyoming to a large degree, are more coal plant retirements, meaning less Powder River Basin coal coming out of Wyoming and being used across the nation.
Right now, we have fairly low natural gas prices. So it's sort of interesting. This past fall and past year, Ukraine was the main story with energy, and that seems to be settling out in a number of different ways. So we have lower natural gas prices, which means actually coal becomes less economic, but potentially gas also less economic too – so that's a challenge.
I think, for Wyoming, there's a couple of bills this session dealing with sort of divestment from fossil fuels. So you might have heard that there's a lot of banks and financial institutions that have been concerned about investments in fossil fuels because of climate issues, but then also just this stranded assets idea. So if you invest in oil and gas, but then that oil and gas never gets produced because of climate issues, then you know, you're out of that money and that investment. So there's some bills, I call them the ‘anti-divestment’ – so it's like divest from divestment bills, that would basically require the state to cut ties with financial institutions that have certain environmental, social or governance goals and ideas.
We often see in Wyoming model legislation. So things that other states have done that we're bringing into Wyoming. Sometimes it's just not a really good fit for our state for any number of reasons. We’re very unique, both the size of [the] state government, the amount of our budget. For Wyoming on this particular issue, the amount of money that we have invested is substantial. So we have a permanent Mineral Trust Fund that no other state but Alaska really has one. We have a lot of other legislative savings reserve account, we have budget reserve accounts. So we have all kinds of savings accounts that would be affected by this in a way that, you know, the states that have done it before, haven't had to grapple with that.