Wyoming backs coal with $ 1.2 million threat to sue other western states

By on May 2, 2021 0

While most states seek ways to boost renewables, Wyoming is doing the opposite with a new program to support the declining coal industry by suing other states that are blocking Wyoming’s coal exports and causing the closure of Wyoming coal-fired power plants.

The law signed on April 6 by Republican Gov. Mark Gordon creates a $ 1.2 million fund for an initiative that marks the latest attempt by state leaders to help coal in the state that accounts for most of coal production in the United States, which has halved since 2008.

“Wyoming is sending a message that it is ready to take legal action to protect its interests,” Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman said of the fund signed on April 6.

The law warns the West Coast states and Colorado – all are looking to get much of their electricity from renewables, but continue to take advantage of Wyoming’s aging coal-fired power plants. The approach may, however, run into legal problems, according to a constitutional expert.

State-to-state lawsuits are not unusual and often involve natural resources, such as water rights. Such cases can go directly to the United States Supreme Court, if the judges agree to hear them.

Last year, Wyoming and Montana – another major coal mining state – asked the Supreme Court to overturn a Washington state decision denying a permit to build a coal export dock on the river. Columbia. The interstate lawsuit follows years of unsuccessful attempts by the wharf developer, Utah-based Lighthouse Resources, to challenge the permit denial in federal court.

The Supreme Court has yet to say whether it will hear the case, but the new legal fund soundly approved by the Wyoming legislature and overseen by Gordon could help cover the cost of that litigation, Pearlman said.

All the while, the outlook for Wyoming’s coal industry is bleaker than ever, even after then-President Donald Trump rolled back regulations on mining and burning fossil fuels.

Wyoming’s coal production, which accounts for about 40% of the nation’s total, is in decline as utilities turn to gas, which is cheaper to burn to generate electricity. Solar and wind power are also on the rise, with coal’s share of the US electricity market dropping from about half in the early 2000s to less than 20% now.

Hopes that other countries will use more American coal, meanwhile, are quickly fading. Lighthouse Resources filed for bankruptcy in December, further delaying the coal dock proposal.

So can lawsuits against the state help the coal industry?

“We support all current state efforts to protect and defend the industry,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

Wyoming could waste a lot of money trying to convince the courts to help coal, said Robert Percival, professor of environmental law at the University of Maryland.

“I don’t think they have a legal leg to stand on,” Percival said.

The commerce clause of the Constitution prohibits states from banning goods and services based on their state of origin. States are, however, free to regulate or outright ban certain goods and services – including coal and coal-fired electricity – as long as they don’t intentionally target other states, Percival said.

It is not yet clear who could be the target of a future coal dispute in Wyoming. Pearlman declined to speculate, saying Gordon and Attorney General Bridget Hill should consider their chances of success, but that they could include West Coast states, including, again, Washington.

Portland, Oregon-based utility PacifiCorp plans to cut coal production by two-thirds by 2030, in part by removing generators at two power plants in southwest Wyoming from 2023, up to five years earlier than expected just a few years ago. The utility serves four states with renewable energy standards or targets – California, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – and two more: Idaho and Wyoming.

PacifiCorp adhered to renewable standards by getting electricity from the cheapest and least risky sources, as it always has, so the standards did not take into account its decisions to phase out coal-fired power plants, company spokesman David Eskelsen said.

PacifiCorp does not have a position on the legal fund, but the Wyoming Rural Electric Association supports the message it sends to states such as Colorado, which has renewable energy standards and gets coal-fired electricity from the southeastern Wyoming, said executive director Shawn Taylor.

“It’s just an integral part of people’s feeling that states and state agencies and entities outside of Wyoming have more of an impact on our energy resources than we do,” Taylor said.

The Coal Litigation Fund followed a 2020 bill establishing a $ 1 million fund to promote Wyoming coal. Wyoming is giving a nonprofit, the Energy Policy Network, $ 250,000 a year from the fund to challenge plans by other states to shut down coal-fired power.

“I will not falter in my efforts to protect our industries, especially our coal industry. The use of coal is under attack from all sides. And we have been steadfast in our support throughout, ”Gordon said in his state of play address in March.

He called on Wyoming to be carbon negative – capturing more greenhouse gases from carbon dioxide than it emits – by investing in technology and infrastructure to trap carbon dioxide in power plants and keep the gas out of the atmosphere.

Carbon capture remains economically unproven on the scale needed to significantly reduce current carbon dioxide emissions. However, Wyoming has funded research on the technology, including $ 10 million in a newly approved bill that slashed Wyoming’s budget by more than 10% due to low revenue from it. the extraction of oil, gas and coal.

Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club, said the state should use its tight budget for more productive use than the coal lawsuit.

“Coal is on the way out,” Wilbert said. “The sooner our elected leaders recognize this and start looking for things the state can do to help us through the transition, the better.”


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