WyoFile Energy Report

Energy policy; Take it from Wyoming

So here we are, with a state economy still overly-reliant on the extraction of fossil fuels — more than 60 percent of state revenue, according to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead. And it appears that anything less than full-throttle coal, natural gas and oil development results in a budget-busting panic, as evidenced in the recent exercise to trim 8 percent from the state budget.

Now Gov. Mead insists the rest of the nation ought to take its energy policy from Wyoming’s and the Republican Governors Association’s playbook.

Dustin Bleizeffer

In an op-ed, Mead and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell wrote, “To fill the void in leadership from the president, Republican governors have developed ‘An Energy Blueprint for America’ that gives a true assessment of the energy challenges and opportunities facing our nation and, more importantly, offers solutions for reaching our energy potential. The plan recognizes the need for a state-centric approach that utilizes every means of energy production.”

In August, Gov. Mead told the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, “This administration has failed for four years to enact a sound energy policy.” And when it comes to balancing energy development with the environment; “We have to move away from this assumption, this arrogance, that if it comes from the federal government it’s better.”

“I would submit to you the state rule,” Mead added, “almost always is a better rule.”

More domestic energy development can lessen our reliance on foreign sources, and that’s a good policy goal. But there’s a huge fallacy in the GOP’s narrative that North America can and should be energy independent. Unlike solar and wind, fossil fuel commodities rise and fall on international markets, and even the red-white-and-blue oil and gas drillers, with their drill-bits in American soil, are eagerly eyeing those international markets.

There’s also the fallacy that America can open up its public lands to full-throttle energy development without sacrificing human health, the environment and multiple use. Whether it’s deer populations in the Pinedale Anticline, sage grouse in the Powder River Basin, or ozone in the Upper Green River Basin, the latest scientific evidence tells us there is a net degradation of the environment related to energy development.

Yet, Wyoming’s elected leaders insist that “advancing technologies” will actually allow energy development to improve the environment. It’s true; read what Rep. Cynthia Lummis said last year. Their argument is akin to saying that slowing the flow of pee into the swimming pool somehow reduces the volume of pee in the pool.

In reality, the question we must wrestle with is how much environmental degradation are we willing to accept on our public lands and in the air we breath? It appears that Wyoming’s elected leaders do not want to have that conversation. Instead, Gov. Mead and his fellow Republican governors put out a “state-centric” energy policy for the entire nation — a hubristic approach to energy policy for a nation that the world looks to for leadership.

Mead isn’t the only one to insist Wyoming knows best on energy policy for our neighbors. Wyoming’s congressional delegation, and at least one Wyoming newspaper editorial board, have made impassioned protests against a number of federal and congressional measures that attempt to take into account the pollution from coal and other fossil fuels that take place both outside and — gasp! — inside Wyoming’s borders.

For example, how dare environmentalists, community leaders and elected officials in the Pacific Northwest meddle with Wyoming’s hand-in-hand alliance with Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources to ship Cowboy coal to China!? Earlier this month, Wyoming congressional Sens. Barrasso and Enzi co-signed a letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar seeking to block an expanded environmental review of new facilities to export Powder River Basin coal.

They asked, why should Asian-bound American coal undergo a “climate change litmus test” when nothing similar is required of Caterpillar dozers or Boeing planes? A better question, I believe, is why should Pacific Northwest citizens be denied the public process provided under the National Environmental Policy Act, which allows public participation to consider the site-specific — as well as the cumulative — impacts of dust, spills, transport emissions and other aspects of large-scale PRB coal exports never envisioned under current planning documents?

These issues are much larger than Wyoming’s own interests. A lot of people are concerned, and ought to be, and anyone purporting to institute a “national energy policy” should take them into account. There is the international community, for instance, which has begged the U.S. to resume leadership on climate change.

“We can’t address climate change without the U.S. … They’re making us abandon principles we don’t want to abandon,” Lili Fuhr, head of international climate policy department for the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, told WyoFile in 2010.

If you’re disappointed that President Obama failed to enact a comprehensive national energy policy in 3.5 years, just consider what’s happened in Wyoming over the past 40 years. Wyoming has failed, for four decades, to diversify its economy to sustain itself beyond a full-throttle dig-drill-and-burn fossil fuel economy (granted, that’s not an easy task). And the whim of national and international markets jolts Wyoming lawmakers into spotlighting state wages, pensions and social safety-net services.

It’s one heck of a way to run a rodeo.

Remember the $400,000 in Wyoming taxpayer dollars we spent on the Western States Energy and Environment Symposium in 2009? It was the brainchild of then House Speaker Colin Simpson (R-Cody) and Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), and out of that effort we got the Energy Producing States Coalition — a boondoggle born from the inability to understand that Americans don’t like to be pushed around by some OPEC-styled self-interest group.

Wyoming and our fellow western states have much to offer the nation in terms of a wide energy portfolio and sound know-how in resource management. Unfortunately, a lot of serious folks are being drowned out by a political chatter that insists the rest of the world must endure the dust, the toxins and the effects of climate-warming greenhouse gases from Wyoming coal, oil and natural gas simply because, hey, it’s the backbone of Wyoming’s revenue and we don’t have an economic Plan B.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Reach him at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer.

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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 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. This is a great column. To further Dustin’s point about externalizing the costs of fossil fuels: When we’ve favored the development of fossil fuels over air, water, and wildlife protections, we’ve ended up — often times — privatizing all of the profits and socializing all of the costs. These days when women get pregnant their doctors tell them (those who can afford good prenatal care, that is) not to eat fish. Why? Mercury contamination. Where does it come from? Well, a huge chuck of it comes from coal-fired power plants. Sorry, Sen. Barrasso, but you know it’s true. Heart disease, a variety of lung diseases, asthma, victims of particle pollution (particle pollution kills, prematurely, about 13,000 people a year in the United States, according to the American Lung Association), are all exacerbated by coal-fired energy (and other fossil fuel development). Ozone pollution at concentrations above about 60 parts per billion (well below the current federal air quality standard) causes instant and irreversible damage to your lungs, according to the scientists advising the EPA. Ozone shortens the lives of children who are exposed to it, the adults who are exposed to it, people with asthma, and the elderly. It also degrades all of the rubber an plastic on our cars, by the way. Wondering why your windshield wipers are bad within a few months? It’s most likely because of ozone pollution. The Pinedale area of Wyoming has concentrations of ozone that are far worse than 60 parts per billion — sometimes double that.

  2. Since this article was published and discussion ensued, the US Energy Information Agency (www.eia.gov) issued a report on American energy consumption. Guess what ? Wyoming consumed more energy per person than any other state. Its per capita consumption was 948.1 million Btu — the equivalent of almost 171 barrels of oil per person per year, or 7,182 gallons per person a year. Yup, the least populated state uses the most energy per person…nearly a trillion BTU for each and every one of us. Of course that is not to pin it on individuals, families, and households as being wildly grossly consumptive of fossil fuel. Not at all. It’s a direct statement of the vast amount of energy that has to be front loaded into the coal mines , gas fields, railroads, and pipelines to yield our gross hydrocarbon product to the world.

    So—truth be told, Wyoming folk are drowning in hydrocarbon coming and going and for that reason we should not be allowed to set national energy policy , because we are too close to it and only understand maximizing the production of it. Our perception is more than a little skewed.

  3. Perhaps we ought come to some sort of agreement on the goal of our energy policy. Is it energy independence? That’s been at least one goal for many years. If so, then I’d argue we must already be there since refined fuels were the nation’s No. 1 export last year. If we can send processed fuel out of the country, perhaps we can slow our energy production just a little to conserve resources here for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

  4. Jack,

    You make some excellent points, but it must be noted that by emitting toxins and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the fossil fuel industry has externalized much of its costs for a long, long time. And that, it could be argued, is perhaps the biggest subsidy in history, and one that has come due in the form of global warming. I agree, we should have a lively discussion about how we can truly develop more energy while minimizing the environmental costs. My argument is that it’s our Governor and other elected officials who refuse to have that discussion — by trying to block larger NEPA analysis, and by putting forth a strictly partisan energy plan (Republican Governors Association). That RGA plan, by the way, was finalized before a group of stakeholders could answer Mead’s own call for a Wyoming energy plan, leaving those folks feeling like they’d wasted their time.

    So yes, let’s have this lively discussion, and not simply accept the highly partisan talking points that our elected officials have shouted through bullhorns. We know the fossil fuel industry has their ear, but we’re not so sure they can hear the rest of the stakeholders.
    — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief

  5. Dustin,
    I think you have left out a huge part of the equation. Consider the results of not maintaining and increasing the energy available to the people on the planet. Extremes of environmental degradation occur where people are forced because of the lack of energy inputs to scour the land for fuel, grazing and food.
    Our goal should be affordable energy produced with low environmental costs. That means producing energy in many ways without subsidies, including nuclear energy. It means timing and methods of extracting fossil fuels that leave a small environmental footprint.
    While we are growing to that point, it is important to keep a energy available to the common citizen. Expensive energy caused by creating artificial shortages hurts job creation (diversification) and everyone’s standard of living, particularly those with low incomes.
    Rather than simply attacking and rejecting the proposal put forth by our Governor for trying to provide for a better future, we should use the proposal to have a lively political discussion seeking how truly we can develop more energy at acceptable, minimal and recognized environmental costs.

  6. I don’t want to stray too far off point here, but maybe we should refresh our short memories and recall the National Energy Plan promoted with great vigor by one of Wyoming’s own : Richard B. ” Darth” Cheney in 2001, almost the first thing he did when taking office as Vice president. It was a task force , and it was secret. Darth closed the doors to all but the top oil company insiders and went to work , conniving, and to the outside world all went dark on energy policy . The ” plan” came out in 2005 in the second term, and in hindsight it became obvious the Cheney task force had led us straight to war with Iraq. Yet I somehow recall how Wyoming leadership and Congressionalr eps were all for it,,,the energy tasking and the blood for oil thing. So what exactly is Mead now complaining about with Obama if he is purposely forgetting what Wyoming’s own Godfather did just one election cycle before Obama in going balls-to-the-wall on energy , damn the consequences.

    Mead’s national energy plan scoping sure looks a lot like Darth Cheney’s to me…on a slightly smaller chessboard closer to home is all. Oh…I forgot about Randall Luthi and that uncomfortable BP well blowout debacle. Dang , we Wyoming folks are just s-o-o-o-o spectacular at doing hard core energy planning.

  7. There’s precious little evidence that “Wyoming knows best” when it comes to balancing resource extraction and environmental quality. If Gov. Mead’s assertion was true, we wouldn’t have industrial sacrifice zones spotted all over the state; ground water pollution in Pavillion; decimated deer herds and sage grouse populations or health/quality of life concerns associated with industrially-scaled agriculture like the hog operations near Wheatland.
    And wherever the EPA has failed to adequately protect the environment, it is laughably absurd to assert that Wyoming agencies would do better.
    Whenever politicians call for a better balance between resource extraction and environment, the key is how that particular politician proposes to tilt the playing field, where the thumb of regulation is pressed on the scale of Wyoming. The historical record so far says that long-term environmental values will almost always be sacrificed for short-term economic advantages.

  8. How Mr. Clinton nutshelled the Republican economic plan last night seems very similar to what you’re describing with energy policy. How I heard him put it: “we made this mess, he didn’t clean it up fast enough, so let us take over again, even though we won’t fix it either.”