A coal train snakes through hills north of Gillette. Officials and politicians hope coal can begin to leave the state more often in the form of products. A “value-added” coal industry could add jobs and diversify the economy, but raises questions of how the state would capture revenue from it with less severance taxes. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
U.S. House of Representatives candidates Leland Christensen (left) and Tim Stubson attended a pro-coal rally earlier this summer. Both also took part in debates this week. Christensen is a Republican state senator from Alta, and Stubson is a state representative from Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
U.S. House of Representatives candidates Leland Christensen (left) and Tim Stubson attended a pro-coal rally earlier this summer. Both also took part in debates this week. Christensen is a Republican state senator from Alta, and Stubson is a state representative from Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Energy policy ranks high among topics of debate in the race for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. All candidates had the opportunity to lay out their strategies in a series of three debates Tuesday at Casper College, hosted by Wyoming PBS, Casper Star-Tribune and Casper College.

While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spar to win the confidence of struggling coal communities in eastern states this week, candidates for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat took on the issue, too. The debate comes in the midst of a severe energy downturn that has sapped some $600 million from the state’s budget. Hundreds of Wyoming coal miners have been laid off in recent months, three Wyoming coal companies have filed for bankruptcy, and neither federal policy or international markets bode well for a state economy that relied on producing more than 400 million tons of coal per year for nearly a decade.

“What the [federal] regulations are actually doing are hastening capital allocations away from coal,” analyst Tom Sanzillo told WyoFile recently. Energy markets are already moving away from coal and toward natural gas, wind, solar and energy efficiency anyway, he added.

But Sanzillo, finance director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, admits he sees the plight of the coal industry — in Wyoming and beyond — a little differently than those running for elected office. From his vantage point, Sanzillo says domestic and international markets all point toward the need for a smaller U.S. coal mining industry.

“Obama, with the moratorium [on federal coal leasing], is doing for the coal industry what it won’t do for itself, which is to shrink the industry, and then see how we can make money. You’re not going to make money by adding to the supply,” he said.

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In the long term, Wyoming should still fare well in a downsized U.S. coal market, because it has some of the cheapest and most abundant coal reserves, Sanzillo said. If policies were constructed to force more coal onto the market — say, at levels seen in 2012 — it would only serve to drive the price of coal even closer to or below breaking even with the cost of production.

Candidates for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat, however, offered their own ideas about what ails the industry and what to do about it.

U.S. House Democratic candidates

— Charlie Hardy, Cheyenne: Asked whether the U.S. House should help provide support for coal miners who have been laid off in recent years, Hardy said yes. But, he’s disappointed that the large corporations that profited for years from the work of their employees appear unwilling to help their current and former workers now. “The large fossil fuel companies had the responsibility, if they were really concerned about their workers,” Hardy said. “The coal industry failed to provide that help [and retraining].”

— Ryan Greene, Rock Springs: Greene said that the federal government is already providing assistance to coal communities struck by the downturn in coal, and it should continue to provide more. That’s an appropriate thing for the federal government to take on. “There are a lot of things we can do” to help Wyoming’s economy, Greene said. Wyoming needs to diversify “both inside and outside the energy industry,” and investments in infrastructure will help all industries.

U.S. House Republican candidates

While generally acknowledging the market forces that U.S. shale gas has had on Wyoming’s coal market, many GOP candidates said federal regulations are largely to blame for the timing and severity of the downturn in coal, and that something can be done in Congress about those policy choices.

— Mike Konsmo, Powell: The first thing he’d do if elected is to promote new coal markets, both in this country and internationally. He believes anybody laid off in Wyoming’s energy industries deserves help in retraining.

— Jason Senteney, Yoder: The U.S. coal industry has been trying to push for coal ports on the “Left Coast” for a while, to no avail, Senteney said. So the answer is for Congress to encourage rail shipment of Wyoming coal to Alaska where there are deep sea ports and less environmental opposition. He said the “truth” behind those who claim climate change must be a national priority is that they have personal financial interests in renewable energy.

— Paul Paad, Casper: If U.S. citizens living on the West Coast are real proponents of addressing climate change, Paad said, Wyoming’s congressional representative should convince them that Wyoming’s coal is in line with their concerns because “it’s the cleanest coal in the world.”

People sometimes refer to Wyoming’s subbituminous coal as “clean” for its low sulfur content — however it still emits about the same volume per unit of greenhouse gas CO2 as any other coal. Other Wyoming GOP candidates for U.S. House shared similar views on federal regulations restricting the mining and burning of coal, but tried to distinguish themselves on what to do about it.

— Liz Cheney, Wilson: In a press statement early Tuesday, the candidate targeted Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton: “Anybody who is looking at the facts knows that Clinton’s attacks on coal undermine our energy potential. Wyoming’s abundant coal reserves hold tremendous promise for our future, yet Hillary Clinton’s Climate Army embraces junk science to destroy industries that are central to our way of life.” Cheney’s list of remedies for restoring U.S. and Wyoming coal industries to their former place in the world of energy and economics include: rescinding the Clean Power Plan, repealing the mercury and air toxic standards, repealing the regional haze rule, lifting the moratorium on federal coal leasing, prohibiting the classification of CO2 as a pollutant, “repealing renewable energy mandates,” and reducing the “size, scope and authority of the EPA.”

— Darin Smith, Cheyenne: “We don’t have energy security or energy independence,” Smith said, but the U.S. has the resources to do it. And with a healthy oil and natural gas industry, and the policies that encourage those industries, Wyoming and the nation will continue to be “beating environmentalists at their own game.”

— Leland Christensen, Alta: The former sheriff and current Wyoming legislator found little room to distinguish his own energy policy priorities in the debate, but stated on his campaign site, “With our vast reserves, we need to be focused on ways to utilize our energy sources more cleanly and efficiently rather than regulating these sources out of existence.”

— Tim Stubson, Casper: The 9-year veteran of the Wyoming House of Representatives said that federal regulations have skewed the nation’s energy balance. It needs to come back into balance: “We need to have a true energy strategy that uses all of our resources.”

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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