President-Elect Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion investment in a “Clean Energy Revolution” could help put Wyoming on the path to a brighter and more sustainable economic future.
That best-case scenario will only be possible, though, if the state’s policymakers are willing to join the rest of the nation in embracing renewable energy — and quickly. Wyoming officials must stop practicing the politics of desperation born of their misguided insistence that fossil fuels will boom again and save the state.
Four years of federal and state energy strategies focused on reviving a dying coal industry have failed. Regulators cast aside fundamental environmental protections, yet achieved only further economic decline and a narrowing of future options for coal states like Wyoming.
The energy policies that Biden campaigned on map a way out of this mess. Their success is far from guaranteed, and potential gains could be hampered by partisan political gamesmanship in Congress and at the state level. But they are unquestionably the best hope we have to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.
The new administration offers more positive action on energy issues than most Wyoming officials probably care to admit. In a state that voted nearly 3-to-1 for President Donald Trump over Biden, it’s easy to predict that Gov. Mark Gordon and the Legislature will fall back on the tired “war on coal” rhetoric and litigation that stymied President Barack Obama’s clean power initiatives.
Biden’s energy plan is divided into two intrinsically-linked parts: robust investment in clean, renewable energy resources like wind and solar, and a related jobs program to reinvigorate an economy that has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.
What’s in it for Wyoming? Plenty. Here are two excerpts from Biden’s plan that would directly address communities coping with the nation’s inexorable shift away from coal:
- “Securing the benefits coal miners and their families have earned … and establishing a Task Force on Coal and Power Plant Communities, as the Obama-Biden administration did for Detroit when the auto industry was in turmoil.”
- “Creating more than a quarter million jobs immediately to clean up local economies from the impacts of resource extraction. … A front-loaded investment to immediately address the backlog of remediation, reclamation and restoration needs left behind by CEOs whose corporations failed to meet their responsibilities to the communities where they operated.”
Both offer precisely what discarded workers and community leaders said they desperately needed when several coal mines shuttered and PacifiCorp announced plans to convert several of its coal-burning power plant units in Wyoming to cheaper natural gas, wind and solar. Biden’s plan could help avert economic disaster in towns like Gillette and Kemmerer.
The biggest carrot Biden’s plan offers the diehard carbon capture, use and storage technology crowd is a pledge to “double down” on federal investments and enhanced tax incentives for CCUS. This includes funding carbon capture sequestration research, development and demonstration projects that Gordon and legislators from coal-dependent districts have tirelessly promoted.
Unfortunately, the president-elect’s CCUS funding commitment is a fundamental flaw in his national energy policy. It placates state officials and the coal industry at a time when Wyoming needs to divorce itself from fossil fuels. The plan declares it wants “to make CCUS a widely available, cost-effective and rapidly scalable solution to reduce carbon emissions to meet mid-century climate goals [of a zero-emissions economy].”
Biden’s plan also calls for investing in small modular nuclear reactor technology to replace burning coal to generate electricity. It’s a popular concept in the Legislature, which overwhelmingly passed House Bill 74 earlier this year to create a regulatory framework for state permitting of the small modular reactors.
No matter how streamlined Wyoming makes the process, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn’t going to fast-track any applications. There has been one new nuclear power plant built in the U.S. in the past two decades, and only one is now under construction.
Biden’s plan calls for achieving a carbon-pollution-free power sector by 2035. It’s possible that a renewed push for nuclear power will make small reactors part of the carbon-free energy mix, but it’s difficult to see the industry gaining much traction without a huge federal investment.
Still, if it helps Wyoming legislators buy into the “Clean Energy Revolution” envisioned by the incoming administration, let them dream all they want about little nuclear reactors on the prairie chock full of Wyoming uranium. When it comes time for a final decision, I think Wyoming residents will rise up against the idea.
By 2035, solar, wind and battery storage should be the backbone of the nation’s clean energy system. Biden wants to extend and expand wind and solar tax credits. But the winds of change are blowing in the opposite direction in Wyoming, where last week the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee advanced a bill to strip tax exemptions for Wyoming wind projects in their first three years of operation.
While there are many companies willing to explore building more wind farms in Wyoming, lawmakers should also investigate what they can do to sell the state as a potential hub of battery-technology research and manufacturing.
Biden’s clean energy plan is one of the most ambitious endeavors ever advanced by a successful presidential candidate. His call to revolutionize the auto industry by making the U.S. the global leader of electric car manufacturing is an opportunity for entrepreneurs everywhere. Electric car parts and charging stations will have to be made somewhere, so why not Wyoming?
It’s a noble cause, but Biden’s outline for a carbon-emission-free future still faces enormous challenges before any of the plan’s parts are implemented. The new president could face significant pushback from House members of his own party who want a more progressive Green New Deal.
Meanwhile, if Democrats lose the two U.S. Senate run-off elections in Georgia, Republicans will maintain control of the Senate. If that happens, a $2 trillion investment to combat climate change would be dead on arrival.
Still, I remain optimistic. Biden plans to sign an executive order on his first day in office to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. He will also immediately reverse Trump’s rollback of 100 public-health and environmental rules that the Obama administration had in place. Both are great moves.
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I’m much less confident in the willingness of Wyoming officials to make substantive policy changes to diversify the economy and end the state’s nearly total dependence on coal, oil and gas for tax revenues.
Two weeks ago, the state rejected ConnectGen’s bid to lease 4,800 acres of state land in Albany County to construct one-fifth of its 500-megawatt Rail Tie wind project.
Wyoming infamously gets peanuts for leasing state land for grazing, but the board kissed off $480,000 per year from the proposed wind farm lease. The company estimated the project would generate $133.5 million in taxes for Albany County and $45 million for the state during its 35-year lifespan.
The state is constitutionally obligated to manage state land to ensure long-term growth in value and “optimum, sustainable revenue production.” But in making its decision, the board only cited concerns from residents about compromised viewsheds and lower private property values.
No federal energy plan developed by either party can overcome the obstacles in a state whose political leaders are unwilling to embrace necessary change for its economic and environmental survival.
Drake is right on the money! Logically speaking, Wyoming should take advantage of their most plentiful resources with sun and wind. Furthermore, energy suppliers in the state should try harder to work together. There is no reason that we are forced to make a choice between fossil fuels OR renewables. Forward thinking planners could provide a grid that accommodates the storage and sale of coal, gas, oil, nuclear, sun AND wind. Wyoming has it all. The state, so in need of money, should stop propping up the coal industry at the expense of others. Instead, they should take advantage of all the resources here by building a massive grid with the ability to handle the mix. Alas, Drake is also right about the uphill battle to get this done.
If we’re going to diversify our revenue streams, the first step is to increase the tax on wind power. The industry’s lobbyists have complained for years that uncertainty in the tax structure will hamper investment. Yet they keep coming to Wyoming. Why? We have the wind, plenty of good sites, and cheap leases on public lands.
We have always made the energy industry pay to compensate the state in part for extracting our minerals, polluting our waters and air, and industrializing our great landscapes. The wind power and solar power industries should not get an exemption.
Thanks Kerry Drake, for yet another thought provoking and insightful article. As an aged Wyoming native it never ceases to disturb me how our state has remained so steadfastly non-progressive. If 20 years ago I was asked if our 2020 state would still be stuck in the mindset that agriculture was our most important industry, and mining would still be our sugar daddy, I would have thought that our state would have finally moved beyond that. But a few powerfully rich conservatives and a mindset that only conservatives can hold office seems to be our destiny until the day Wyoming has to fold up and go the way of the dinosaurs. We badly need some progressive injections into our electorate.