A coal train navigates its load through an s-curve near Coal Creek Jct. in the Powder River Basin. (Jerry Huddleston/FlickrCC)

They all talked at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, as people will when their desires become words.

     — William Faulkner, “The Sound and the Fury

Wyoming officials can rant and cuss about the federal government’s coal policies as loudly and as angrily as they want, but it won’t change one fundamental fact: They have failed our coal communities and their woe-is-us, innocent-victim act is a load of rubbish.

Opinion

I could use the Western equivalent of that assessment, something that’s found in abundance in horse pastures. But you get the idea.

Gov. Mark Gordon said he’s “furious” because none of the state’s applications to a federal coal community assistance program were selected as a finalist. The governor called it an example of D.C. politics “at its worst.”

The state’s all-GOP congressional delegation was equally outraged. Keep in mind that all three members voted against the American Rescue Plan Act, which contains the program that has drawn their ire.

Sen. John Barrasso called it a slap in the face to Wyoming’s energy workers. Sen. Cynthia Lummis said it was “just another example of the Biden administration’s tone-deaf approach to communities reliant on the energy industry.”

Rep. Liz Cheney said she voted against the Democratic-backed ARPA “because it’s clear that the funding in the legislation would not benefit the people of Wyoming.” 

Let’s dissect that last criticism first, because it shows that instead of honestly addressing why Wyoming’s projects may have been rejected — and how they might be successful in future grant applications — all four politicians chose instead to keep singing their favorite tune, “The low-down war on coal blues.” (I’m pretty sure Nero played fiddle on the original recording.) 

It’s also blatantly untrue. Cheney knows ARPA will provide $1.1 billion in federal funds to Wyoming. The state will unquestionably benefit from that huge infusion of cash, which isn’t tied to the separate economic development competition.

When Wyoming failed to advance to the second phase of the “Build Back Better Regional Challenge,” the governor acted like it was the end of the world, instead of just yet another failure resulting in part from his administration’s inaction. 

“These decisions are clearly political and not based on merit,” Gordon said in a joint statement with the delegation. “It is absolutely disingenuous to hear President Biden’s bureaucrats say they are concerned about our state when they slam the door on these communities’ future.”

Disingenuous? Like talking a big game while local economic development officials warned in August that they needed help from the state if they hoped to compete for the grants? The Wyoming Energy Authority and the Wyoming Business Council said months later that they would step up their respective games, but it was clearly too little, too late.

Here’s the reality: ARPA allocated $300 million to communities struggling to cope with the rapid shift from coal mining to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar. One-third of that amount was earmarked for the challenge program that has generated so much sound and fury from Wyoming’s leaders.

But $200 million will be spent on grants to coal communities throughout the nation, and Wyoming projects can — and should — apply for those funds, too.

While it would have been great for one of Wyoming’s applicants to be chosen for the BBBRC, the competition was fierce. It drew 529 applications, and only 60 were chosen as Phase 1 finalists. A mere dozen selected came from coal communities.

Yes, Wyoming is the leading coal-producing state, and cities like Gillette, Rock Springs and Kemmerer are obviously impacted by closed coal mines and the retirement of coal-fired power plants. But that doesn’t mean any application from Wyoming automatically deserves to be crowned a winner.

An integral part of the BBBRC was to develop and strengthen “regional industry clusters” while embracing economic growth, creating good-paying jobs and enhancing U.S. global competitiveness. 

“These are supposed to be regional partnerships, and a region is not Campbell County,” Sheridan businessman Logan Jenkins told WyoFile. He also said the criticism leveled at the feds by state officials reeks of hypocrisy.

Gordon’s histrionics in particular have no merit, since he knew what ARPA funding he’d recommend to the Legislature when he launched his anti-Biden rant. Three days later, he asked lawmakers to put $100 million into the “rainy day fund” to match private sector or federal funds for large-scale energy projects, including carbon capture for a coal-fired power plant, hydrogen hub, carbon sequestration and nuclear power projects.

If Gordon’s plan is approved, $30 million would also be spent on economic development efforts to support mining, agriculture and entrepreneurship. Another $55 million would be devoted to the next phases of the Wyoming Innovation Partnership to expand the state’s workforce and economy. Local government support projects would be eligible for $50 million.

That’s a whole lot of federal money that can be used to aid the energy projects and coal communities that Gordon claimed were shut out by Biden.

The truth is that the Legislature can devote millions in ARPA funds to help communities make what stakeholders call a “just transition” from fossil fuels to clean energy. I suspect, though, lawmakers will echo the governor’s anger about the challenge grants.

It’s a tried and true political strategy: So long as you can point to some bogeyman or scapegoat, you can keep shirking your own responsibilities.  

The Republican leadership has bought into Gordon’s all-in strategy to promote carbon capture, utilization and storage, despite the fact that the technology has failed to produce a single commercially viable power plant anywhere in the world.

Whether it’s ARPA, spending tens of millions of dollars on CCUS research or plans to invest up to $2 billion in an experimental nuclear reactor at the Kemmerer power plant, the Biden administration has been coming through for Wyoming.

And let’s not forget the $2.5 billion Wyoming will receive from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, another of the president’s accomplishments that can help coal communities. Wyoming’s congressional delegation voted against that one, too.

Like most Republicans, they have thumbed their noses at Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act, even though it makes a huge investment in advanced manufacturing credits set aside for communities that have seen coal facilities closed. At stake nationally would be $800 million in credits in 2022 and 2023, and $300 million annually from 2024-31.

“The credits could be especially impactful in communities with strong renewable resources,” noted E&E News. “Wyoming’s coal mining communities boast strong winds, while coal communities in the Southwest have ample sunshine.”

Perhaps the U.S. Economic Development Administration rejected Wyoming’s BBBRC proposals because Gordon and legislators have been too busy propping up the coal industry at the expense of clean, renewable energy that Western utility customers demand.

Wyoming could learn a few things from Australia, where all coal-fired power stations are projected to close within the next decade. 

While national politicians have buried their heads in the sand Down Under when it comes to enacting efficient energy and climate policies, Australia’s state governments have come to the rescue. They offer job retraining, relocation assistance and financial support to transition local economies from coal to green energy.

That’s what we call leadership here in Wyoming — or would if there was any to be found. As Tim Nelson and Joel Gilmore put it in an article in the Australian publication The Conversation :

“The stone age didn’t end because of a lack of stones. And the coal age is ending despite an abundance of it – whether governments believe it or not.”

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. It is pretty clear that there is no real policy in Wyoming to utilize this energy transition money to help coordinate industries that would benefit Wyoming.

    I was at a Minerals meeting where various ways to store electrical energy that could be captured during off peak electrical times from wind, solar, nuclear and coal were discussed. Based on the presentation it is clear Wyoming could encourage these types of storage operations that could be built here, generating many jobs, but what was also clear is the Minerals committee nor the Governor has grasped the potential of building off our energy production. Using cheap energy to produce hydrogen fuel cells for cars as well as creating ammonia for fertilizers and refrigeration were just some of the examples. I saw the potential in doing all these things, but committee apparently could not or would not take steps to encourage the Governor in coordination with our Federal and State delegations to go down this path.

    Instead we will blow money filling lawsuits that achieve nothing, while the Republican delegations blame Obama…..err Biden but never coal loving Trump to win re-election to repeat the same cycle, while other States pass us by.

    Fossil fuels are not going away yet and we are a leader in Energy Production with new production occurring all the time; Why not focus on be a leader in energy storage that will bring revenue to our people and communities? We have had Chicken Little leadership for far too long and Wyoming cannot afford it anymore.

  2. Like it or not, fossil fuels imperil the future of our planet. Our children and grandchildren deserve political courage from our leaders not the disingenuous posturing that is a staple of Wyoming elected officials. Ignoring science will only hasten our decline.

  3. Wyoming can learn from Australia? Gun confiscation… Concentration camps… Permanent Lockdowns… Police brutality on an industrial scale… Grabbing minorities off the street… Beating women and children.. Forced chemical injections.
    Yeah. A real Shangri La…
    And of course killing coal when it is absolutely a linchpin of the industrial age. You cannot power EVs without it. We all know rich Leftist snobs want their electric status symbols. It is irrational to think we can go forward without coal fired energy when China and India are expanding the use of coal. But that is where the crisis sits. The West has been taken over by Chinese money. Our supposed national leaders are idiots and sycophants. These ideas are designed to take us back to the stone age so they win the next war without firing a shot. This is all to create a failed economy by design and blame the folks who said “I told you so.” Which is the purpose of this piece. Bah! Humbug! Stop the partisan nonsense and grow up. It is going to be a long and painful 2022 at this rate. Drink some Nog and be grateful we had a 4 year break from absolute stupidity. Enjoy family and friends and get right with God. Merry Christmas!

  4. Excellent article Mr. Drake. If anything you were much kinder to the gov or the legislature than they really are entitled to.

  5. Not surprised the resident Marxist is clinging to the failed policies of an unpopular regime. He purposely neglected to mention that even CNN reported that Biden’s economic policies are fairing worse than Carter’s. Even Democrat Joe Manchin could see through the smoke and mirrors of the unfunded BBB debacle. It’s wonderful that Americans are waking up! They are reminded every trip to the grocery store and gas pump that the Democrat/Communist party is the party of failure.

  6. Wyoming’s leaders blackout is ignoring the future of the black rock industry while failing to see the great possibilities in Wyoming of wind and solar energy production is an economic threat just as the death from Covid of the non vaccinated and the growing shortage of medical staff due to work related stess has a government blackout of that economic threat.

  7. Excellent analyisis, Mr. Drake. Unfortunately, it will probably be ignored by our Governor and Congressional Delegation, because there is no reasoned argument to escape the points you make and the supporting information you provide. Faulkner is alive and well.