Lawmakers approved two more years of funding for an independent environmental review agency but may still consider cuts stemming from the board’s controversial decision to deny a coal mining permit in Northern Wyoming.
An original version of Wyoming’s two-year budget had struck the second year of funding for the Environmental Quality Council and mandated a report to lawmakers on the council’s efficiency and whether it should retain its own staff or be served by employees of the Department of Environmental Quality instead.
The Senate reinstated funding and that decision was maintained in the final budget passed Saturday.
The two-man agency serves a seven-member board, appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. That board hears contested cases in Wyoming, from energy firms disputing decisions made by state regulators to landowners complaining about environmental issues.
The council is also the final stop before new regulations from the Department of Environmental Quality are passed on to the governor for approval.
Lawmakers in favor of the funding cut maintained that they were not trying to get rid of the council, but to gauge its performance before deciding on a second year of funding.
Representative Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, said in a floor debate Feb. 21 that he had heard that the agency was “having problems,” and that staffing them through the Department of Environmental Quality was within the law.
“The statute says they will get their advice from the state’s top legal mind and they will get support from the agency that handles environmental issues,” he said.
Lawmakers also noted the council’s decision to deny a coal mining permit for Ramaco Wyoming Coal Company last fall as one of the reasons they had concerns with the council.
Ramaco’s proposed Brook Mine in Sheridan County was given preliminary approval by state regulators but was opposed by a number of locals who believed the company’s plan fell short of addressing the impact of a new mine in their backyard. The council voted, with one dissenter, in favor of the landowners and requested that more work be done on the mining plan before regulators could give a permit to Ramaco.
The decision troubled some lawmakers, who could not name Ramaco on the floor per house legislative rules, but alluded to a contentious mining decision. Burkhart said it’s a problem when the state’s regulatory agency sees nothing wrong with a permit, a company spends millions on developing it, but it’s derailed by “radical groups.”
Those who opposed withdrawing funding for the Environmental Quality Council argued that the board was designed to be independent and at times in disagreement with the state. That’s its role and its value, said Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, whose husband is a member of the Environmental Quality Council.
“I can assure you, they are the only common sense buffer between your average-day Joe who runs a garbage bus or a gravel pit and government overreach,” she said in the House debate.
Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said they would be watching the results of the report on the council during the interim. The Powder River Basin Resource Council opposed the Brook mine permit.
The proposal to cut funding appeared “reactionary,” she said.
“I think there were a number of legislators that self-corrected that and wanted to affirm that this is an agency of public importance,” she said.
Wyoming’s budget was a contentious one this year. More than a third of lawmakers voted against to the final bill, with some seeking more cuts to deal with a large deficit. The state is facing an $850 million budget hole due to declines in energy markets. It largely depends on its savings to keep government funding stable over the next two years.