CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – While most states are looking for ways to promote renewable energy, Wyoming is doing the opposite with a new program that aims to prop up the dwindling coal industry by suing other states that block Wyoming coal exports and shutdowns from coal-fired power plants in Wyoming.
The bill, signed by Republican Governor Mark Gordon on April 6, creates a $ 1.2 million fund for an initiative that marks the latest attempt by world leaders to help coal in the state that makes up most of the U.S. Coal production, which has halved since 2008.
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“Wyoming is sending a message that it is ready to initiate legal proceedings to protect its interests,” said Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman of the fund signed into law on April 6th.
The bill is alerting the West Coast states and Colorado – all trying to get a large portion of their electricity from renewable sources but still getting juice from aging coal-fired power plants in Wyoming. However, according to a constitutional expert, the approach can run into legal issues.
Lawsuits between states are not uncommon and often involve natural resources such as water rights. Such cases can be brought directly to the US Supreme Court if the judges agree to hear them.
Last year Wyoming and Montana – another major coal state – asked the Supreme Court to overturn a Washington state decision to refuse permission to build a coal export dock on the Columbia River. The interstate lawsuit followed years of unsuccessful attempts by Utah-based dock developer Lighthouse Resources to challenge the denial of approval in federal court.
The Supreme Court has not yet said whether it will hear the case, but the new legal fund, forcefully approved by the Wyoming Legislature and overseen by Gordon, could help meet the cost of this lawsuit, Pearlman said.
The outlook for Wyoming’s hard coal mining industry remains dire, even after then-President Donald Trump rolled back fossil fuel mining and burning regulations.
Wyoming’s coal production, which accounts for around 40% of the country’s total production, has declined as utilities switch to gas, which is cheaper to burn to generate electricity. Solar and wind power are also growing as coal’s share of the US electricity market drops from about half in the early 2000s to less than 20% now.
Hopes that other countries will now consume more US coal is rapidly fading. Lighthouse Resources filed for bankruptcy in December and further postponed the coal dock proposal.
Can state or state lawsuits help the coal industry?
“We are currently supporting all efforts by the state to protect and defend the industry,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
Wyoming could be wasting a lot of money convincing courts to help coal, countered Robert Percival, professor of environmental law at the University of Maryland.
“I don’t think they have a legal leg to stand on,” said Percival.
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The constitution’s trade clause prohibits states from banning goods and services based on their country of origin. However, states are free to regulate or directly ban certain goods and services – including coal and coal power – as long as they are not deliberately targeting other states, Percival said.
It is not yet known who could be the target of future lawsuits in Wyoming. Declined to speculate, Pearlman said Gordon and Attorney General Bridget Hill needed to investigate their chances of success, but they could also include West Coast states including Washington.
Portland, Oregon-based utility PacifiCorp plans to reduce its coal burning by two-thirds by 2030, in part by shutting down generators at two power plants in southwest Wyoming from 2023, even five years earlier than planned just a few years ago. The utility serves four states with renewable energy standards or targets – California, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – and two that don’t: Idaho and Wyoming.
PacifiCorp meets the standards for renewable energy by getting electricity from the cheapest and least risky sources, as has always been the case. Therefore, the standards have not been taken into account in his decisions to decommission coal power, said company spokesman David Eskelsen.
PacifiCorp has no position in the legal fund, but the Wyoming Rural Electric Association supports the message it sends to states like Colorado that have renewable energy standards and get coal from southeast Wyoming, executive director Shawn Taylor said.
“It’s only a fraction of the people who feel that states and government agencies and corporations outside of Wyoming have more control over our energy resources than we do,” said Taylor.
The Coal Dispute Fund followed a 2020 bill that created a $ 1 million fund to help mine Wyoming coal. Wyoming pays a nonprofit, Energy Policy Network, $ 250,000 a year from the fund to help meet plans in other states to shut down coal-fired power plants.
“I will not falter in my efforts to protect our industries, especially our coal industry. The use of coal is being attacked from all directions. And we were consistently committed to it, ”said Gordon in his country address in March.
He urged Wyoming to be carbon negative and capture more greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide by investing in technology and infrastructure to capture carbon dioxide in power plants and keep the gas out of the atmosphere.
Carbon capture remains economically unproven to the extent necessary to meaningfully reduce current carbon dioxide emissions. However, Wyoming has funded research on this technology, including $ 10 million in a newly approved bill that cut Wyoming’s budget by over 10% due to poor oil, gas and coal revenues.
Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club, said the state should use its tight budget more productively than coal lawsuits.
“Coal is on the way out,” said Wilbert. “The sooner our elected leadership recognizes this and looks for things the state can do to actually help us transition, the better.”
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