Coal operations in Wyoming. (BLM Wyoming/FlickrCC)

In late March, Wyoming entered into a lawsuit to prop up the state’s fossil fuel industries. Or, should I say, another lawsuit to prop up the fossil fuel industries. It’s hard to keep track of them all these days. It seems Gov. Mark Gordon aims to establish a proud Wyoming tradition of suing anyone and everyone who tries to take action on climate change by reducing the use of oil, gas, and coal.

Gordon and other Wyoming politicians paint these pro-climate efforts as attacks on Wyoming’s people and our way of life. As a matter of fact, I’m a proud, lifelong Wyoming resident. I cherish our outdoors and wildlife, and like many people my age I’m deeply concerned about climate change. These lawsuits don’t represent me — but it’s clear who they do represent.

The most recent lawsuit, filed on March 24, pits Wyoming against the Biden administration over its decision to pause oil and gas leases on federal lands. This comes on the heels of the state signing onto a suit fighting the decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline. Both of these are piled on top of litigation against Washington state over its refusal to build a port so Wyoming can ship its coal to Asia. And it looks like the tradition will continue — the Legislature is set to pass a bill creating a $1.2 million “legal defense fund” so Wyoming can sue other states that try to divest from coal.

State politicians are aligned when it comes to Wyoming’s need to defend its fossil fuel interests in court. But these lawsuits don’t benefit normal Wyoming residents nearly as much as they help the state’s biggest and most powerful industries. All of the actions that prompted the suits share a single goal: To slow the devastating impacts of climate change. They have the side effect of potentially cutting into some fossil fuel companies’ profits. As someone who hopes to spend another 50-60 years living in Wyoming, I’m more concerned about the long-term threat of climate change and the impacts of fossil fuel development than I am of the size of an oil company CEO’s bonus next year.

Gordon described Biden’s leasing pause as a “direct attack” on Wyoming. State Superintendent of Schools Jillian Balow said it would “defund Wyoming schools.” Even Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik claimed it was “bad for Wyoming’s wildlife.” But all of these arguments seem overblown. There are literally millions of acres of public land in Wyoming that have already been leased for oil and gas development, but no one is doing anything with them

Meanwhile, it turns out that the report Gordon and Wyoming’s Congressional delegation are using as proof of the lease pause’s harm was paid for, in part, by the oil and gas industry. I also suspect the oil industry and its lobbyists helped Balow and other state school superintendents craft their alarmist messages. A former Interior Department official called the idea that Wyoming would lose hundreds of millions of education dollars from the pause “absurd” and “ridiculous.” As for Nesvik’s claim that pausing oil and gas leases would hurt Wyoming wildlife? Just about every wildlife biologist in the state seems to disagree.

Fossil fuel industries are important for Wyoming in terms of jobs and tax revenue — I don’t deny that. But that’s largely because Wyoming lawmakers have chosen to keep things that way, even as the world around us moves into the 21st century, away from fossil fuels, and leaves us behind. 

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I understand why they’re moving away. In my 26 years in Wyoming, I’ve seen the mule deer herds in the Upper Green River Basin decline as their sagebrush habitat has become dotted with well pads and crisscrossed by roads. Summer before last in Converse County, I stood on the edge of the Thunder Basin before dawn and watched the light from gas flares at dozens of wells stretching to a horizon where sage grouse leks are rapidly shrinking and disappearing. And I’ve already witnessed summers growing longer and hotter, droughts increasing and wildfires burning larger, more intensely and later into the fall. 

Wyoming’s lawsuits against climate actions don’t represent me. The more we learn about the phony “harm” things like the lease pause inflict on Wyoming — while we witness the real harm caused by fossil fuel dependence and climate change — the clearer it becomes whose best interests our leaders and their lawsuits have in mind. Not mine, and probably not yours, either.

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  1. Very nice article. I have never been to Wyoming yet..almost made it this year..couldnt get past montana. Read many books and articles about the Mountain Men when growing up in Ohio and living in Michigan. Have spent most of my 65 years outdoors hunting fishing trapping when young and hiking. Have been an observer of nature as well as participant. The Climate Change is all too real to me. It is speeding up the last five years. Likely gonna be bad. I can see the change in fishing trips to Hatteras NC. Much less beach from the rising ocean and more frequent storms. Minimal ice on Lake Erie from years past. Much less snow last five years in Ohio and Michigan.. Apparent increased desertification as High Plains in California North Dakota and Montana dry out from less rainfall as well as snowfall and hotter temps. All environmental changes I have observed. So you all in Wyoming are going to need all the aquifers you can get to that are not polluted by the oil gas mining industry..I am afraid fire season is going to be real bad this year and maybe new norm. Unfortunately too many people don’t seem to see the Earth they live on. How the climate change and severe weather disruptions are upon us all.

  2. While the premise of Don’s article and the following comments are good, I challenge the wisdom of not protecting Wyoming’s Energy industry. We all know that it is completely necessary to reduce our carbon emissions as much as possible. The process of change will be long and difficult. Even in the end, we will still require hydrocarbons for many things. While we travel the path to a lower carbon world, the oil and gas industry will still be necessary. Legislation to limit and penalize the O&G industry does not solve the problem. All that will do is force us to import oil. Is that good? The better path to take is to support de-carbonization with vigor and allow the O&G industry to shrink due to competition with alternative energy.

  3. Well said Don! I also am a lifetime resident and lover of our wide open spaces. There is NO listening to scientists in this state. We need to DIVERSIFY our economy and our legislature is not even trying to start. What we voters need to do is work on keeping money out of the politics. We need to make EDUCATED votes!

  4. Excellent job Don. Keep it up!
    There’s clearly a large segment of the Wyoming (and US) population that is not being represented in these lawsuits & policies.

  5. Nice piece, Don. As a 72 year old native of the state, I couldn’t agree more. I wish the people in power i.e. legislators! had half your vision and wisdom.

  6. Dear Don,

    You represent clear thinking and a love of Wyoming and keeping it clean,wild and free. Those who want to hold on to drain the last barrel of oil and dig the last tone of coal before they embrace clean energy are climate deniers who will ruin the state and our future. Keep on fighting and speaking out and together we will win a just climate future.

  7. No worries, Don! Wyoming with eventually go along with your ideas soon enough! Fossil fuels have been our bread and butter for many decades. Wyoming has been known for their Boom & Bust economy.

    Once the renewables can bring in the same amount of tax dollars and raise as much tax royalties as fossil fuels in our State, politics in our state will change quickly.

    In the mean time, Wyoming needs all the tax dollars we can get to keep our state budgets afloat.

  8. Dead on, Don. As a Wyoming native and current resident the ostrich syndrome is alive and well in Wyoming. I am constantly amazed at the idiot-ology promoted by many of our legislators and governor concerning every issue that should matter to leaders of an informed citizenry. Damn the facts. Let’s race into the past! Really pathetic.

  9. Good piece Don! As a former lifelong resident of Wyoming I am continually appalled at the tunnel vision employed by the state “leaders” with regard to climate change, health care, environmental issues, ….They so little to attract and keep younger people to the state. So glad you are there and fighting!