Brinksmanship dims future of Wyo coal

When it comes to climate policy, Wyoming’s congressional delegation is engaged in the same type of brinksmanship that downgraded America’s credit rating and sent the stock market plunging on Monday. Only the results of this hard-line, anti-regulatory tactic threatens to diminish the future of Wyoming’s coal industry, which injects about $1 billion into the state’s economy annually.

In announcing another delay — up to two years — of the High Plains Coal Gasification research facility in Cheyenne, GE Energy pinned it on the prolonged inaction toward a federal climate policy.

“The original project investment plan anticipated more progress toward certainty in the future of federal energy policy,” GE stated in a joint press release with the University of Wyoming.

High Plains is one of several cleaner coal projects to be shelved in recent months — all due to the same inaction on Capitol Hill. Without emission targets, utilities cannot draw up blueprints and crunch numbers for cleaner coal facilities. For the past 10 years, utilities have warned they cannot invest in new coal-based power until this regulatory “uncertainty” is dealt with.

There’s never been much daylight between the coal lobby and Wyoming’s congressional delegation when it comes to greenhouse gas policy; no policy is better than the wrong targets. “I think the need for climate legislation doesn’t mean we settle for just any legislation, or bad legislation,” American Coal Council CEO Janet Gellici told WyoFile earlier this year. “This is of a magnitude that will have economic repercussions. … It’s an evolutionary process.”

But cutting greenhouse gas emissions from coal isn’t a new policy ambition, and now markets seem to be moving beyond the political quagmire in D.C. Instead of recognizing this, Wyoming’s congressional delegation seems to be locked in a hard-line, anti-regulatory narrative that only throws cold water on pragmatic efforts to set greenhouse gas emission limits.

In March, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) introduced the Defending America’s Affordable Energy and Jobs Act, attempting to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from implementing a Bush-era mandate from the U.S. Supreme Court that the agency must regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

In a March op-ed published in Human Events, Barrasso wrote, “By curtailing the regulation of greenhouse gases while still allowing for regulation in areas where those gases pose a clear and direct threat to the public, this bill puts the burden of proof on the EPA to show that direct exposure to the same gases we inhale and exhale every day will threaten public health.”

Even some environmental groups say implementing greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act is tremendously awkward and a bad idea. But Wyoming’s delegation is part of the reason Congress has gotten nowhere on enacting its own greenhouse gas controls. EPA is the poor second choice, but at least its efforts could chart out a possible course. Would Barrasso’s plan to block EPA’s efforts create more or less uncertainty about investing billions of dollars in new coal?

In his March editorial, Barrasso essentially acknowledged the need to curb mercury, nitrogen oxides and other toxins from coal plants because of their direct impact to human health, and then asserted that greenhouse gas emissions are not a threat in terms of climate change.

Not recognizing the world’s largest-ever scientific consensus — that the world’s climate is warming and that man-caused greenhouse gas emissions are contributing — is bad enough for a person who has taken the Hippocratic Oath (to do no harm, and prevent disease). But to put short-term political gain ahead of tackling long-term interests would make Barrasso a poor leader for Wyoming. Playing brinksmanship with climate policy doesn’t help those companies and researchers who are serious about building a future for Wyoming coal.

Rob Hurless worked as energy policy advisor to former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, and he recently signed on to advise Gov. Matt Mead on energy policy, too. I asked Hurless whether there’s a serious hope in the energy industry that a federal energy policy WOULD NOT include regulation of greenhouse gas from coal.

“All the folks who came to talk to Gov. Freudenthal that I had the opportunity to sit in on — and the vast majority were pretty serious folks — every one of them had a working assumption they were going to be living in a carbon-constrained world,” said Hurless.

The High Plains project was supposed to be one way for Wyoming coal mines to survive in that kind of world. It’s part of Wyoming’s insurance policy against the greenhouse gas emission limits that most of the world understands must, and eventually will be implemented in the U.S. and other nations.

Wyoming has committed $50 million toward the High Plains Gasification project, and so far is on the hook for about $7 million for work done so far. Through several legislative appropriations, Wyoming has invested another $31-plus million on clean coal research through the Clean Coal Task Force.

If Congress’ inability to address greenhouse gas emissions is a no-go for the High Plains project, then does that mean Wyoming’s other investments in cleaner coal deployment are at risk, too?

“That’s a really good question, and the best answer I can give you is, I don’t know,” University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources director Mark Northam told WyoFile in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Northam spent the week in Washington D.C. visiting with Wyoming’s congressional staffers about energy policy and attending the U.S.-China summit of the Joint Clean Energy Research Development Center. He said businesses and researchers working to deploy cleaner coal technologies such as coal-gasification, carbon capture and sequestration, are being dogged by Washington’s fractious political dialogue on energy policy.

Wyoming congressional leaders are an energetic part of that contentious discussion. In January, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) said it’s not so much a question of disagreement over details of how to schedule and implement greenhouse gas limits. Rather, to him, it’s a fight over whether or not to use coal at all.

“This (Obama) administration is flat-out against coal and they’re not going to let another permit go through. In 10 years, the coal industry will be done,” Enzi told WyoFile.

A month later, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Cheyenne announcing plans to lease 758 million tons of federal coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Enzi and Barrasso’s broadside attacks on the Obama administration and efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions may score political points. But there’s a growing body of evidence that it has also helped to stifle gasification and other cleaner coal efforts that Wyoming is counting on to save its coal industry.

In his comments to WyoFile, Northam didn’t place any blame on Wyoming’s congressional leaders, and said he’s convinced that Barrasso “is not giving up on coal.” Still, he suggested the tone of the discussion on Capitol Hill is only adding to the “uncertainty” that GE Energy cited in its decision to delay the High Plains project.

“The climate here in Washington to address those issues is really dismal. I don’t see anything happening before next year’s election to address climate change,” said Northam. “The rest of the world continues to recognize the absolute imperative of reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels. … G.E., Babcock & Wilcox and others (that want to deploy cleaner coal technologies) are saying, ‘All right. We’ll go do business in China then.’”

The Obama administration continues to lease federal coal in Wyoming, and coal companies continue to buy it and promise to ship more of it to China. The question is, where will cleaner coal technologies go? Will American coal fuel a new cleaner coal market here in the U.S. or in China?

– Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Thank you for the indepth article and taking on a few sacred cows. I would like for Americans to understand a little better about energy and what it means. It is easy to throw rocks at Wyoming, but energy issues are not simple. All sources of energy come at a cost. Clean coal projects only make sense. Playing politics instead of having broad debate about our growing consumption of energy and how we are going to deal with a warming climate is just another sad, sad commentary on how out of touch our government is from the web of life. Keep up the great reporting.

  2. Great article, Dustin. I am really afraid that the political stance of our congressional delegation along with all other Republican politicians, both in and out of Wyoming, is going to mean the doom of our civilization. The scientists have pointed out the terrible risks of doing nothing. We are already witnessing some of the results of carbon dioxide buildup. Is there no way for our politicians not to connect the dots? Thanks for your good efforts.