Kemmerer area residents listen during a more than three hour public comment period that occurred when the Wyoming Public Service Commission visited the town. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

KEMMERER—One by one last Tuesday evening, active and retired coal workers, small business owners and local politicians voiced deep economic anxiety and called on the Wyoming Public Service Commission to stave off an energy transition some here see as an existential threat.  

“I have a very strong concern about whether Lincoln County can survive,” Lincoln County Treasurer Jerry Greenfield told the commission.

The state’s utility regulator visited Kemmerer and Rock Springs last week to take public comment in two communities where coal and coal-powered electricity generation have long been economic cornerstones. The comments will be incorporated into a PSC investigation into utility company PacifiCorp’s plan for early retirement of coal-fired power plant units in Wyoming.

Since PacifiCorp first indicated interest in transitioning away from coal power in favor of wind and solar, some of Wyoming’s political leaders have begun to eye the PSC as a potential lever to protect coal country jobs. The posture state politicians are adapting toward the energy transition mirrors the sentiments of many in southeastern Wyoming.

“We don’t want you to pay too much attention to the radicals in California and those people, and let them make your decision for you,” Cokeville resident Sharon Dayton said. “We want to keep on burning Wyoming coal.”

PacifiCorp’s Naughton Plant outside Kemmerer on a cold January day. Residents here much prefer the sight of exhaust coming from the plant than rows of wind turbines or fields of solar panels, based on comments at Jan. 28’s meeting with the Wyoming Public Service Commission. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The crowd, some still clad in safety clothing from mine, railroad or the Naughton coal plant work, rose to their feet several times over the course of the meeting. 

Many stood when Rob Piippo, the president and general manager of the Kemmerer Coal Mine, asked all miners to stand. More stood when Piippo urged retired miners and the families of miners to rise. 

They also stood when Dr. Karl Robinson, a dentist, asked those in the room who breathe out carbon dioxide to stand — a jab at those who say CO2 is driving climate change. Those who trust the scientific evidence connecting climate change to humanity’s expanding CO2 emissions are “pointy-headed liberals,” Robinson said. 

Polling suggests a majority of Americans, and Wyoming residents, trust the scientific conclusion on climate change. 

“This is just political correctness run amok,” Robinson said. “Coal is cheap, it’s affordable and it’s so reliable. We should hold on to it.” 

The meeting underscored the resentment and worry of a region where many residents, who labored day and night to electrify the west coast for decades, now feel their way of life is being sacrificed to distant politics.

A man in a mine union sweatshirt watches a presentation by a PacifiCorp official before the public comment period began at a Jan. 28 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting in Kemmerer. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Wyoming’s extraction economy has always been tied to commodity prices. Still, some suggested what is at stake is not just what electric source dominates the market, but Wyoming’s ability to decide its own fate.

“It’s not about energy supply and demand or the environment,” said Sue Abrams, a councilwoman in the town of Star Valley Ranch. “It’s really about power and who is going to control what.”

“I want us to remain a sovereign state,” she said. 

Locals questioned the reliability of renewable power, arguing it is propped up by subsidies and too untested to shoulder the demands of the electrical grid. Repeatedly, speakers portrayed a dark vision of a future where solar panels and wind turbines crowd Wyoming’s vistas and degrade its wildlife and where electricity prices rise even as rolling blackouts disrupt western cities. 

“Wyoming is going to be covered with windmills, wind farms and solar farms,” said Rose Arndt, the mayor of Cokeville. “We’re going to lose our recreational beauty … We are going to become the armpit of the United States. Why? Because we allowed large powerful companies to come in and destroy what we in Wyoming love so very much.”

Natural gas extraction infrastructure lines the southern road into Kemmerer. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Cokeville councilman Taylor Allred also echoed concerns of renewable energy development harming wildlife. He distinguished wind and solar units from the prolific gas development that lines the southern road into Kemmerer in an interview after the meeting. Gas development “does not affect the wildlife after the initial drilling,” he told WyoFile.  

Gas pads, “they don’t affect the sage grouse, they don’t affect the antelope,” he said. Renewable energy is treated more favorably by regulators when it comes to rules regarding wildlife death, he argued.

‘Who we are’

Piippo, the mine manager, also spoke at the Rock Springs meeting the following day. “When the sun isn’t shining, when the wind isn’t blowing, it’s my team,” he said there. “My miners that are shipping the coal to that plant and keeping the power going so that people don’t freeze and people don’t starve.” 

“Coal mining isn’t what we do. It’s who we are,” he said. Summing up much of the sentiment displayed over the two days, he said, “don’t allow this decision to erase part of who I am and who we are.” 

A letter to the PSC from the Sweetwater County Commission detailed coal’s impacts on the economy in that county. Employment in mines and plants — around 929 jobs in Sweetwater County facilities — supports 5,103 county residents, or 12% of the population, the letter read. Those workers owned 1,394 homes, which is $27 million in assessed value for property taxes. Those workers’ property taxes are a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions in state and county taxes levied on the mines and plants themselves. 

“The imminent retirement of coal-fired power plant units and the coal mines will create a void in the county,” the commissioners wrote.

Two women cross a street in downtown Rock Springs. The area’s economy will be impacted by coal mine and plant closures. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Beginning in June 2018, PacifiCorp held a series of public hearings and meetings about the creation of its Integrated Resource Plan. The plan outlines the course the company will take developing its electrical grid and power sources in coming years. PacifiCorp is the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, which operates in Wyoming. PacifiCorp is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway. 

In Kemmerer, a local United Mine Workers union member, Martin Argyle, called that process “no better than the [U.S.] House of Representatives sham trial on impeachment.” He suggested the new plan — which was released in October — could raise electricity prices many times over.

Many commenters accused PacifiCorp of ignoring technical realities to please public service commissions in politically left-leaning states, which buy the vast majority of the company’s electricity.  As evidence they pointed to a coal plant study that was ordered by the Oregon Public Utility Commission. The study concluded that closing power plants will save hundreds of millions of dollars, leading to lower future rates for the company’s customers. Distrust of Oregon politicians led some to question the study’s veracity. 

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PacifiCorp has argued the study was part of its decision making, but did not drive the IRP. The company analyzed more than 120 different mixes of energy sources before making its choice. The corporation considers its plan well equipped to maintain grid reliability, said Rick Link, who directed the planning process. 

“We made sure that in every hour we could meet not only enough energy generation to meet the customers needs,” Link told WyoFile, but that “we had sufficient extra [electricity] plus a cushion … and we added resources and costs to ensure that.” 

Comments about power blackouts or large price spikes are “not consistent with the analysis we performed and are not supported by that,” Link said. “Folks are making their best estimate of how they think that works, and let’s say our perspective is we’ve looked at it and are comfortable frankly.”

Kemmerer area residents listen to public comment during the Jan. 28 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting. Some in the crowd wore safety clothing suggesting employment at the mine, power plant or railroad. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Such arguments are not likely to sway residents like Argyle. “I learned a long time ago that figures don’t lie but liars figure,” he said. 

“Come walk a mile in our shoes in Wyoming before you destroy us,” Argyle said to the utility officials. Argyle is retired, he told WyoFile, but said his 33-year-old son works in the coal mine.

Government levers

It’s not clear how the PSC’s investigation will address this angst. The commission did not respond to the commenters, saying they were collecting the testimony for their record. A court reporter accompanied the commission, occasionally interrupting speakers to have them repeat their words. 

The comments are “something that we will summarize in our order that we issue at the conclusion of this proceeding some time in August,” Kara Fornstrom, the PSC chairwoman, told WyoFile. “There’s some obvious common themes,” she said, “issues that the commission is worried about as well such as [electrical grid] reliability and the underlying economics.” 

“That’s the point of the investigation is for us to be able to answer those questions,” she said.

A number of state-level elected officials were present at the Jan. 28 Wyoming Public Service Commission in Kemmerer, including Rep. Danny Eyre (R-Lyman), left, and Rep. Evan Simpson (R-Afton). (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The community’s economic anxiety, “that came across loud and clear,” Fornstrom said. “I’m not sure how we’ll respond to that … The commissions’ job, we are economic regulators.”

The PSC does not have the authority to disapprove the plans of the utility operating in several states. At the investigation’s end, the PSC will issue “findings of fact,” Fornstrom said. 

Where the body can flex its muscles comes later, PSC general counsel Chris Petrie and Fornstrom both said. As the utility begins to implement its plan, it will need permission from the PSC to shutter a coal plant unit or build big new solar projects. 

The Legislature and Gov. Mark Gordon seek to use the body’s authority to preserve the life of coal plants, passing a bill last year that would force the utility to seek a buyer for a coal plant unit before closing it. In conjunction, the state’s politicians seek to spend more money researching ways to minimize coal power’s climate impacts before the country moves on without it.

The Legislature has also considered more stringent measures, like holding utilities financially responsible for the “socioeconomic impacts” of their decisions. Lawmakers are also toying with some deregulation of the electrical grid. 

Those actions were popular with the crowd in Kemmerer. Many commenters praised the new law to find coal plant buyers, brought by local Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton). Dockstader was in attendance at the meeting, along with many other state politicians from the area.

Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), third from left, stands with area residents at the back of a crowded room during a Jan. 28 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting in Kemmerer. Several speakers praised Dockstader’s legislative efforts to preserve the life of coal plants, principally a bill that would force utilities to seek a buyer before retiring a plant unit. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Kemmerer city administrator Brian Muir called Dockstader’s bill “breakthrough legislation” that will give the town’s plant a chance to live on. The PSC is still in the process of crafting rules for the new law. Industrial power consumers, oil and gas companies seeking carbon for enhanced oil recovery and even cryptocurrency miners have all been floated as potential buyers for plants. 

“It can be done. We just need to believe it,” Muir said. 

Residents applaud the PSC’s investigation into whether PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power’s plans will impact reliable and affordable power, he said. “As a community we feel that these are not only Rocky Mountain Power’s customers, but our customers,” Muir said. “Our coal miners and power plant operators have served them well for decades.” 

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. The true future of coal lies in its conversion to other more valuable and less polluting products. As was mentioned earlier, Coal to Chemicals is a process in place since the 1930s, producing methanol from coal is something China has been doing for decades and perfected it. Now if you’re worried about CO2….simply take the CO2 and through electrolysis and water you produce more methanol.! There you go a self sufficient facility producing its own fuel and extra for the chemicals and transportation industry.

    I’ve reached out personally to several coal companies and states including the state of Wyoming several times and never received replies for what is in fact a simple solution. There doesn’t seem to be any real willingness to try something new and keep people employed in this country…this is a hard reality that I’ve encountered in my career when proposing perfectly economical, technically feasible and logical solutions to apparent problems.

  2. People who expect the government to solve their problems will be greatly disappointed.

    I am not sure what to think about the coal miners in Kemmerer. Perhaps more than a few of the very well paid coal miners spent foolishly instead of investing in their future after the coal company told the residents of Kemmerer at public meetings 20 years ago that the coal gig in Kemmerer would not last. It’s unlikely that the coal company knew the extent of the future threats against it but they knew they were nearing the end of the mine’s, & power plant’s, life cycle long before natural gas, global warming, renewable energy, and liberals threatened the industry. No amount of mine expansion, new markets, or technology, was going to, or will, save Kemmerer’s major industry.

    There may be a future with coal but it’s not a future Wyoming prepared for, controls, or even understands at this point.

  3. South Africa like Wyoming has a abundance of coal and is a nett exporter of coal .
    I have visited Wyoming a number of times over the years which has left a warm place in my heart for the beautifull country side and empathy for the people living there especially the coal miners who are the breadwinners of their families and the mines who in turn provide vital taxes to the state that assists with all the tax breaks – low VAT and no individual state tax etc.and other services that it provides to residents there.
    There is a solution to increase coal production across the board in the Powder River Valley,that could work for all, by ensuring sustainable coal production and sustainable jobs for years to come.The solution could lie in CTL and GTL tecnology (Coal to Liquids and Gas to Liquids ),which Sasol, a South African Company are the leaders of in the world .Sasol started producing gasoline from coal as far back as the 1950’s and to this day produce chemicals ,gasoline and low sulpher diesel from coal and gas,Sasol’s is currently completing the construction of the Lake Charles project in south western Louisiana where transformational GTL and chemicals technologies will help unlock the potential of abundant natural gas resources, provide the U.S. with world-class, cleaner-burning fuel, contribute to the country’s energy security and support expanded domestic manufacturing.
    I believe that the Wyoming and Montana coal companies should get together and commence discussions with Sasol to establish the viability of a synfuels project for the region.Should the project be proven feasible, this western region of the US could become suppliers of diesoline to the rest of the USA via pipeline or rail linkage that could go a long way to solve the current production curbs caused by environmental pressures and improve sustainable mine output for many years to come. Mine workers and their families will get sorely needed job security ,the communities will again thrive and prevent the depopulation of smaller towns and solve the rehabilitation of mines and the shortfall in taxes that the state government is currently experiencing .

    1. Basin Electric operates the Dakota Gasification plant in North Dakota that converts coal into natural gas. Because of the price now a days of natural gas Basin in hauling coal to Newcastle. They have struggled the past few years making ends meet and have invested heavily in byproduct production from the coal, urea, fertilizer etc. There have been many similar projects proposed through the years in Wyoming in fact but they have never gotten off the ground. DGC is the only one I know of in the U.S.

  4. What seems to be lost on the locals and their (mostly Republican) elected representatives is that the power companies decision are driven by their customers in those dreaded Big Cities. That’s the free market, folks. If no one wants your product, you can’t force them to buy it.

  5. Moffat County Colorado is headed in the same direction, maybe even sooner. We are being run roughshod over by the massive Transmission line projects from the WY wind farms, to Las Vegas and So. CA. for what seems like a pittance of a return (well less than $1 million per year and that’s after the lines go live) considering it will only employ 2 full-time maintenance people to service 90 miles of equipment And, it’s only a DC line until it gets to the transfer Station in Utah, which means Moffat County receives no energy benefit. Both Projects are owned by multi-billionaires; Phillip Anschutz (R) Transwest Express and Warren Buffet (D) Gateway South. Also, both projects will share a migratory waterfowl flyway (the National Wilflife Refuge in Brown’s Park as well as a migration corridor for big game from WY into Colorado.

  6. I appreciate the angst of people who are facing change and feel they have little control over what happens to them. Many of us have faced similar times in our lives and it is awful. I didn’t see any mention of giving the areas where coal plants will close priority in siting new wind or solar projects. I don’t see a way to continue reliance on coal, as it is not cheaper and it certainly is not cleaner than other energy fuels. Anyone watching what is going on in Australia knows we cannot continue burning coal. But the human cost of the transition should definitely be a major concern, I’d like to see a strong effort to replace coal jobs with clean energy jobs right there in the communities that are losing coal.

    1. Dear Linda,
      The bush fires in Australia have absolutely nothing to do with coal whatso ever.
      The fact is the no provision was made authorities for the burning of preventative fire breaks that stop fires spreading uncontrollably once started.The origin of this oversight lies with environmentalist who misguidedly pressured government to cease the proven practice of fire breaks because so they believed , “that some undiscovered fauna or flora species might be destroyed by such preactices.”Well the result of the total devastation caused by runaway fires ,which could have ben prevented with pre burnt fire breaks is there for all to see.
      Coal is found mainly underground and is therefore in its natural environment not prone to setting alight even if the bush on the surface is burning as a result of the flash point for coal which is much higher than for that of wood.Technology exists to use coal that is “clean burning” as used by most mega power utilities in South Africa who provide 95 % of all power delivered there.
      regards,