Gov Mead begs for coal’s rescue while denying man’s role in climate crisis

— May 16, 2014

Against the backdrop of dire climate reports (climate change is a growing national security threat, the inevitable loss of the Western Antarctic ice sheet will surpass the predicted rate of sea level rise) what seems to scare Wyoming’s top elected officials the most is what it means for the state’s coal mining industry.

Dustin Bleizeffer

The mining industry and the $1.2 billion in annual revenue Wyoming reaps from it are indeed under threat. After peaking at  more than 460 million tons in 2008, Wyoming coal production has declined to a pace of about 400 million tons annually today. St. Louis-based Arch Coal and St. Louis based Peabody Energy recently posted massive earning losses, due in part to their Wyoming coal operations.

The state and the coal industry’s U.S. electric utility customers are preparing for legal battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its proposed rule — due out in June — to cap CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants, followed by another new rule to ratchet down CO2 emissions from the existing coal-fired power plant fleet.

It’s a serious threat to Wyoming’s economy — long reliant on coal as a steady revenue base to boom-and-bust energy extraction. It’s no surprise that Wyoming leaders are fighting mad about it. Gov. Matt Mead (R) and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality Administrator Todd Parfitt have laid out a series of legal and regulatory complaints about how EPA is moving forward on a number of rules to reduce a host of coal plant emissions (Gov. Mead recently estimated his administration has about seven pending lawsuits against EPA). Many of the points are legitimately debatable. There are also legitimate concerns for what it means to utility ratepayers (all of us) to make a significant shift away from coal when the nation is ill-prepared to launch renewable energy and efficiency alternatives at large scale, and in short order.

Yet in their rally to preserve Wyoming’s coal industry, our elected leaders offer only callous acknowledgement of the threat of climate change — both as it relates to the economic and human health toll around the world, and as it relates to Wyoming’s non-fossil fuel resources that also drive the state’s economy and cultural well-being.

In recent months, Gov. Mead’s message on climate change has evolved from agnostic to “skeptical.” And he seems bewildered at the national attention that view has earned.

At a press conference on Monday I asked Gov. Mead, “In your mind, how urgent is the need to address climate change? Is it urgent enough to justify any federal regulatory approach to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal?”

Gov. Mead’s response: “As you know, I look at it a little bit different. I mean … I’m skeptical on that issue, but I’m not skeptical on terms of what the markets are doing. As I mentioned earlier, we see the markets on coal being hurt. And so, in terms of markets, I think there is an urgency for the state and the federal government to help find as many solutions for coal as possible.”

He added, “I think that’s not only a market issue, but as with any energy source, I think all of us should have a goal in how to make sure it’s being used the best way possible and as environmentally friendly as possible.”

Two days later, Gov. Mead gave the keynote address at the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s Spring Energy Conference in Cheyenne. He tried to diminish the relevance of whether he believes man’s role in climate change is real by saying it didn’t really matter that he’s a skeptic. More important is that he’s focused on solutions — for coal.

“When it comes to the current debate of this issue on air quality — on climate change, global warming — whatever people prefer,” he said, “I remain skeptical that global warming is by human activity. … I’m not a scientist. I could be wrong on this.”

He added, “Whatever your views are, shouldn’t we all say coal is a valuable resource (and) let’s find solutions?”

In the U.S. we are 40 percent reliant on coal for baseload power generation (down from 51 percent reliant less than 10 years ago), and in China the population is about 80 percent reliant on coal for baseload power generation. There’s no doubt that mothballing the nation’s and the world’s current coal power plant fleet on short order would create a human health and economic crisis itself. But offering only parenthetical concern to the urgency to curb manmade carbon emissions is dangerous, too.

This view, held by Gov. Mead, Wyoming’s legislative leaders, and its congressional delegation, seems to have pacified them in the belief that — with no regulatory guidance — the U.S. and the rest of the coal-dependent nations will rally behind carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies to preserve the world’s existing coal fleet and to even expand the use of coal. And, that that’s a sufficient response to climate change.

In his keynote address to the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s (WIA) Spring Energy Conference on Wednesday, Gov. Mead expanded his stump speech on coal to include a line of reasoning championed by coal producers and port developers working to expand coal exports to Asia: We must expand the use of cheap coal to lift the world’s impoverished populations into the growing middle class, who greatly benefit from better living conditions provided by affordable electricity.

“The production of coal is not a selfish interest. It is good for the country (and good for the world),” Mead said.

This pitch was perhaps most clearly stated by another speaker at the WIA event on Wednesday — Andy Roberts, principal analyst for international thermal coal for the firm Wood Mackenzie: “The worst thing for the environment is living in poverty.” 

Roberts went on to insist that China is determined — obligated, even — to “electrify the countryside” with coal-based electricity, and in short order, because those rural and poor populations of China demand the same standard of living enjoyed by their country’s growing urban populations. When I was in China in 2009, I heard a much more nuanced message; that poor, rural areas want a higher standard of living and relief from the disastrous health impacts of industrial coal emissions.

It would be fantasy to expect the governor and the rest of Wyoming’s high-level officials in the GOP-dominated state — where fossil fuels feed about 70 percent of the state’s budget — to cede any degree of ratcheting down the use of coal. But they risk diminishing their legitimacy with Wyoming citizens (not just their die-hard voting base), as well as their national and international partners (who, by the way, do understand man’s role in climate change) in getting onboard with their CCS will happen with no regulatory guidance strategy by ignoring the world’s consensus, concern, and determination to curb carbon emissions.

Perhaps it does matter whether Wyoming officials acknowledge man’s role in climate change. If Gov. Mead understands the market realities of climate and coal better than he understands the science of climate change, he might understand that telling Florida, New Jersey, Bangladesh, the Philippines and the rest of the world that man-caused carbon emissions are of no concern and require no concerted effort is a non-starter when it comes to helping out Wyoming’s coal-reliant economy.

In the meantime, Gov. Mead and his colleagues might find it increasingly difficult to make the case that the world’s focus should be to preserve the use of coal in the headwinds of reports warning that the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is sapping proteins from crops, reports that for the entire month of April the atmospheric CO2 concentration averaged out to over 400 parts per million (a warning sign that we’ve already overloaded the atmosphere with CO2 for mankind’s liking), and that Asian cities are choking from smog and thousands of people are dying from pollution.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has covered energy and natural resource issues in Wyoming for 16 years. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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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. The Boston Globe is the latest newspaper to editorially slam Wyoming for its rejection of Next Gen Science Standards based on questionable beliefs surrounding climate change. The essay singles out state ed board chairman and former gubernatorial candidate Ron Micheli and representative Teeters. Guv Matt got a pass in Boston this time. It’s worth noting that the Governor of the state of Kentucky went ahead an approved next gen science standards even though the legislature rejected them, and he himself was skeptical. But unlike Matt Mead, that governor realized his state had an obligation to educate their youth for a realistic world.

    A strong opinion piece in the Globe today, entitled ” Wyoming, the state of science denial. :
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2014/05/28/wyoming-rejection-climate-change-science-education/EFQC1tnNOOAfPjx2fkp9dI/story.html

  2. ALEC Mead works for big energy,, the dirtier the product, the higher the profit, yea Wyoming, and dinosaurs are only 6,000 years old too!
    Climate science was accepted by all parties until the Koch Bros. politicized it, now our future generations are going to pay a heavy, Heavy price and all the money in the world won’t buy our way out,,, our gift to you, class of 2100!

  3. remember science isn’t about what you think its about how you think

    The manner in which these three Antarctica studies were reported and broadcast by the news media can only be characterized as an extraordinary example of what climate alarmism and climate science propaganda looks like.

    It is clear from how these alleged news reports were handled that the news organizations involved are pushing political and ideological agendas that have nothing to do with objective climate science reporting.

    (1)

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/jeffrey-meyer/2014/05/13/abc-cbs-and-nbc-freak-

    out-over-melting-antarctic-ice-much-south-flori

    (2)

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/05/13/the-media-over-hyped-the-west-antarcti

    ca-climate-propaganda-reporting/

    (3) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8387137.stm

    (4)

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/05/23/climate-alarmists-make-major-blunder-i

    n-reporting-antarctica-ice-loss-results/

    (5) http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-27465050

    (6)

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/19/doubling-of-antarctic-ice

    -loss-revealed-by-european-satellite

  4. Postscript:
    The Sunday May 25 editorial in the New York Times is entitled ” The Willfull Ignorance of Wyoming”. It is short and to the point, decrying Wyoming’s official policy of denying climate change, as demonstrated by nixing the Next Generation Science Standards.

    Whatever you think of that , or however willing you are to shoot the messenger, it cannot be understated that the rest of the nation is beginning to believe that Wyoming is a province of backward country people. Thanks to Guv Matt Mead’s narrow rhetoric and some loud Legislator’s regressive rabble, it has just now become harder to dig ourselves out of the intellectual and economic hole we built by being subservient to the robber barons of King Coal, Fat Gas, and Big Oil. Given the skewed publicity and outgassing of Wyoming’s obdurance about fossil fuels, why would anyone want to move here and set up a real 21st century non-energy business or raise a family here amid the carbontards ? Wyoming looks less and less attractive each day as anything other than a driveby vacation spot.

    It happened on your watch , Matt, but you had a lot of help deepening that socioeconomic hole. Quit shoveling. Please.

  5. This strategy isn’t just crazy, it’s wildly incompetent.

    China just closed a major gas deal with Russia, one that will certainly impact European markets and drive up the price of natural gas world-wide. While the press have focused on the geopolitics of the deal, we should recall that China is the putative destination market for the insane scheme to ship Wyoming coal across the Pacific. As inhabitants of their cities begin to revolt/flee because of the pollution, the Chinese have seen the writing on the wall: coal is over. It may not be climate change driving the Chinese decision, but having their most prosperous citizens in their most economically important cities threaten to leave en masse because of environmental degradation ought to be a clue to the future.

    Don’t they have newspapers or Internet in the governor’s mansion in Cheyenne?

    If Mead and other Wyoming politicians insists on lobbying on behalf of the mineral extraction industry, couldn’t they choose one with a future? It’s one thing to couch an ideological position on economics, but when the underlying economics tell a story of certain doom, it’s time to move on.

  6. The hard truth is that in the eyes of the nation and the world, Wyoming and its coal are largely expendable.

  7. It is interesting to “listen” to some of you so called environmentalists harp about how bad coal is yet ignore the impacts of the so called “green” energy sources like wind. The Obama Administration/Environmental lobby are so blinded by coal and other fossil fuels they ignore the negative impacts wind and solar energy have on the environment. If an oil company/coal company/mining company killed eagles/bats/birds you would all be up in arms about how terrible the energy companies are – fine them, shut them down, blah, blah, blah. At the same time, you choose to turn a blind eye if the wind energy companies do the same thing?

    It is a real issue.

  8. I’ve heard of anti-wind energy folks complain about how wind energy machines are noisy and kill birdies and are eye-sores, but I’ve never heard that they cause weird weather. Thank you, Kristi Layman! Could you perhaps tell us your sources of this information? If they’re in Colorado, I’ll have to get in touch — they obviously are growing and consuming the best pot in the state.

  9. The arguments about Coal are DOA if all you consider is the resultant carbon dioxide produced by burning the stuff. We have to consider the totality of coal… all its byproducts, all its costs, all of its effects, its cumulative role in air quality and health care, the simple fact it is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, and all that is required to mine and move the stuff. Coal is a hydra. We need to view its totality.

    Then we can have the essential debate. Provided Matt Mead & Ilk Inc. take off the blinders and remove the earplugs…

  10. Maybe someone could open their eyes to what all these danged windmills are doing to the environment. After windmills are installed, surrounding buildings and cars are affected by the increased wind shear, tearing off roofs and breaking windshields and windows.

    Maybe one of these “climate experts” can review the research already done on the vortexes caused by these windmills, not only what is caused horizontally but also vertically. When you get 100+ windmills churning out the electricity, think about the wind shear that is propelled vertically; tell me, does this have anything to do with increased winds or more violent storms?

    A couple windmills are cute; 100+++ windmills ruin the visual beauty of the land. Why not put 1,000 windmills in Yellowstone Nat’l. Park? Do not tell me windmills don’t pollute. Then, they increase the wind velocity of our atmosphere and we get increased storms: hail, severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes.

    For producing electricity, coal is the biggest bang for the buck. Compared to 30 years ago, present coal fired power plants in the U.S. are cleaner than ever–and they are still working to make them cleaner yet. Pollution: we either smell it, we observe it twirling in the air, or we get increased storms destroying our property.

    Pick your poison!

    KRISTI LAYMAN
    Cheyenne

  11. Good job on a complex subject. I’m not a Environmental Scientist, but work in the Gulf Coast Petrochemical Industry. I see reports in articles all the time on CO2 content of the air. Seldom do I see data on what role that plays vs other factors like Volcanos or Sunspot activity. I’ll be glad to take a look at it. Just send me a truckload of money & I’ll join Algore and some others. We’ll fire up our private jets & go to an exotic place and talk about it. In the meantime, let’s send the coal to China & let them burn it. Of course, it takes years to get permission to export Energy from the US – just ask anyone trying to export LNG.

  12. Mary Could you ask why the discrepancy between the models and reality are becoming even more significant? Thanks.

  13. The first time Gov Mead said “I’m a skeptic but the markets are responding” I thought “Since when did chasing markets become a strategy for foresight and leadership?” It seemed doubly cowardly as a leadership position. And it doesn’t represent what Wyoming has taught me over a lifetime–pay attention to the power of the land and my place on the land.
    By the same token, we have skillful models of what 300-400 ppm means so it’s just silly not to take the spectrum of data seriously produced by those models. Prof Guy McPherson will explain the stark range of predictable outcomes on June 4 at Northwest college, Powell, 7pm in conversation w energy industry HLeighton Steward who represents Mead’s position. It will be an opportunity to compare 97% of the science with 97% of the political will in the state. We hope Wyofile will cover it.

  14. Whenever I hear the phrase, “energy experts agree” or “most American’s agree”, as you voiced today “moderating” the Wyo Business Report panel on coal exports, I immediately tune out, stop reading, stop listening. The political ideology soon follows.
    There have been dozens of mass extinction events in the geologic record, 4 of which have been near-total extinctions, all of which preceded anthropogenic sources of carbon.
    Your Wyofile readers lap up the climate change hysteria. Others do not. Sorry.

  15. Wyoming needs more nurses, less neo political pseudo-science wing nut journalism and politics. That’s ‘good’ science and ‘good’ economics.

  16. Gov. Matt (ALEC) Mead is working for the pollution industry, coal won’t go away tomorrow but it needs to go away, if that is the only industry that can help support this state then ALEC is just not doing his job!
    Wyoming has let their cash cow run the show for decades, one of our legislators (her name escapes me at this moment) wants to allow oil companies to dump waste water into our streams that are not deemed to be in contact with humans,, seriously??

  17. Nice article Dustin. As we move into more complicated issues the State of Wyoming is facing, it is becoming more and more apparent that the Governor lacks the ability to be a progressive leader. I do not necessarily agree climate change is 100% man made, but we certainly need to be more progressive about taking care of our environment and the impacts we have. The scorched earth policy the Obama Administration has taken with regards to energy development in this country will have dramatic impacts on our economy not only with Wyoming, but nationally as energy rates rise dramatically. The Governor’s “stick your head in the sand” approach is just as bad as the Obama Administration’s approach to “bankrupting coal.”

    What we need is progressive leadership on this issue from both the sides of the fence – something we lack with regards to various issues in this country right now.

  18. Brilliant analysis, Dustin.
    But somehow, I still don’t get what the Hon. Meadenthal is trying to convey.
    “The production of coal is not a selfish interest?” So we’re a state of altruists? Apparently he feels that “the market” believes that climate change is for real, and has therefore discounted coal’s value. And doesn’t he believe that the invisible hand is all-knowing? Why, I think we’ve somehow elected a metaphysicist as our governor.

  19. What I found exasperating about Mead’s remarks was his assertion that we want to keep using Wyoming coal for the next 300 or 400 years…