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Gov. Gordon discusses issues facing the West and Wyoming’s coal industry

Gov. Mark Gordon gives his inaugural speech after being sworn in for his second term. Jan. 2, 2023
Governor Mark Gordon
Gov. Mark Gordon gives his inaugural speech after being sworn in for his second term. Jan. 2, 2023

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon is the current chair of the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), which was formed to help foster bipartisan policy development, information exchange and collective action on important issues in the West. The WGA is celebrating its 40th anniversary in California next week. Wyoming Public Radio’s energy and natural resources reporter, Caitlin Tan, recently took the time to check in with Gordon about how things are going with the association – and also, how he thinks things are going in Wyoming, especially with regards to coal.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Caitlin Tan: Governor Gordon, really briefly tell us about what the role the Western Governors Association serves.

Mark Gordon: The Western Governors is a regional group, both Democrats and Republicans. It's one that has been particularly important to Wyoming because we really do focus on regional issues of interest, like invasive species, forest management, rural working landscapes, geothermal development, and then the one I did, which was decarbonizing. It’s really all the things that are going on in the region that can address CO2 emissions and be able to capture CO2 in lots of different ways.

CT: The annual conference is in California next week, and you're going to be speaking about your initiative. Tell us, what kind of findings and recommendations have you guys found since you launched the decarbonizing initiative?

MG: Last fall we launched it by visiting Gillette and talking about the Integrated Test Center and the great work that's being done there to capture carbon in emission streams from coal generation. Our idea was to highlight not only what we need to be able to do to address emissions, but also taking coal and turning it into really terrific products like carbon fiber or a binder for asphalt. We then went to Idaho, where we talked about forestry management and how important that is to have well-managed and growing forests as a carbon sequester. We then went to Colorado and talked a little bit about direct air capture – also decarbonizing – things that are really difficult to do.

So again, being able to look at the things we can do to reduce emissions from processes that we actually have to have. And I think it's really important to recognize this is both Democrats and Republicans coming together.

CT: Let's stay on that, because as you're saying, a big focus of the WGA is bipartisanship. I’m curious what that looks like in practice, especially when we talk about using carbon capture technologies to keep the coal industry going. Some other states, like Oregon and California, are looking at phasing out coal. How do you guys work through these really different, seemingly opposite goals?

MG: Well, it sort of depends a little bit on energy production states and energy consuming states. With regard to this sort of central part of the West, we've been able to, from North Dakota all the way down to New Mexico and out west to Idaho and Utah, really talk about coherence and policy. I think part of that is being able to engage in conversation with our friends on the West Coast, to really be able to say, “Look, if the concern about climate change is CO2, let's address that. What you're focusing your policies on is to curtail fossil fuels. In that case, that’s sort of counterproductive because we're now putting your consumers at risk because we can't provide the electricity on a reliable basis.”

Editor’s Note: One of the main concerns about renewable energy is that sources like wind and solar aren’t available 100 percent of the time to provide electricity. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, that concern could be relieved by further development of energy storage options, like batteries that would store extra wind and solar energy to use at times when the wind isn’t blowing or sun isn’t shining.

What we need to have is a much more robust conversation about, “How do we power this nation? How do we make sure we enact policies that help encourage innovation that will address this much better?” Rather than just saying, “Let's not do that.”

CT: What about here in Wyoming? There's a lot of controversy just within the Republican Party. For example, the far right Freedom Caucus has continued to imply they don't think you're doing enough to protect Wyoming's energy industry. They've attacked you for using the words climate change. What are your approach and values when it comes to working through these disagreements?

MG: The Freedom Caucus is a political caucus. They want to make themselves relevant somehow, I suppose. And they've taken to consistently pick at things that we're doing.

We're approaching 60 lawsuits across the waterfront. The most recent [Freedom Caucus] attack has really come because they say, “On a timely basis, you're not taking the lawsuits as aggressively as we would.”

First off, you have to have something that you can sue on. Second off, you got to understand that suits take time to resolve. In fact, one of our biggest issues, when it comes to things like endangered species, we're getting delayed in the court system so long that the effect of a lawsuit is really lost because we're not getting resolution. So I think it's really important that people understand that we are all trying to figure out ways that we can protect our industry.

I do take a certain amount of delight in the fact that I have been engaged to protect our coal industry since I was first [Wyoming State] Treasurer, and actually before that as well, as I worked for an oil and gas company. My commitment to fossil fuels is unassailable.

CT: You mentioned the lawsuits and one of those is aimed at the federal government over some new rules that are tightening regulations on coal plants. There's also been a proposal to end new [coal] mining in the Powder River Basin. Governor, what's the range of things that could happen now – what would you want to see happen?

MG: We'll continue to work on all of these issues. As you mentioned, the Buffalo and Miles City Resource Management Plan comes out with a recommendation for no more leasing. We think that's absolutely contrary to responsible resource planning. And we'll continue to fight there and bring all kinds of issues to bear both to the document itself on the legal front, but also in our conversations on it.

CT: Do you think that some kind of decline of coal is inevitable since trends show it's been declining since 2008, regardless of who’s president?

MG: My view is that I hope that doesn't happen. I hope that for a couple of reasons. One is that it is dispatchable, and it's dependable. We don't have battery technology.

Editor’s Note: Battery storage is needed to make solar and wind reliable sources of electricity for the power grid. According to the International Energy Agency, more efforts are needed for the technology to be effective, including policy reform

We're working on TerraPower, a new nuclear plant that can help maybe address some of that. But that's still 10 to 15 years away.

Editor’s Note: TerraPower is aiming to begin operating in 2030 at their Kemmerer facility.

Meanwhile, coal has the ability to meet those needs. And I know there's a lot of discussion on carbon capture and how expensive that's going to be.

Editor’s Note: Some estimates from utility companies operating in Wyoming show it would cost $1 billion to install carbon capture retrofits on a single unit at a coal plant.

You have to look at that in context. When you build a wind farm, you still have to overbuild it by 30 percent, because it's not going to produce consistently. All of the transmission infrastructure that goes into that is also expensive.

There is really no option that's not going to cost money. And coal can be competitive. And I think it can be competitive with carbon capture technology, because the first generation is always expensive, and then it gets better as it comes along.

CT: I just want to give you a moment to speak to the average Wyomingite. It feels like many of us are pretty worked up. It's an election year. You just mentioned all these federal policies that could have big implications on jobs, the environment. And then on top of it all, there's been that alleged wolf torture case in Sublette County that kind of has given Wyoming a black eye. It's even pitted neighbors, longtime friends against each other just here in Sublette County. There's a lot of issues that feel like you're either with us or against us. Governor, any tangible advice you could offer to Wyomingites?

MG: I would say on that note, I've grown up here, been 67 years in Wyoming. There have been times when we've been on edge with our neighbors, but we've always known that Wyoming is a very small town with very long streets. That our neighbors, you're gonna run into them wherever they may be, and somehow pull together. That's where we've got to come down to. There's been so much national invective that's come into Wyoming. It's affecting the way people in Wyoming look at each other. We need to remember our roots. We need to remember what Wyoming is about. And we will go help our neighbor even if we're kind of cantankerous with them. We'll go help them when they need help and we expect them to come help us. We can make sure that Wyoming is a place that is a bellwether for what has made America great and that is our ability to work together. We can agree and we can disagree, but we can always do that when we disagree better.

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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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