Wyoming lawmakers may hold up funding for an independent environmental review board after it ruled against a coal mining permit in Sheridan County.
The House budget bill does not allocate any funding for the Environmental Quality Council, a small state agency that handles contested environmental cases, in the second year of the two-year budget.
As stated in the measure, both the Environmental Quality Council and the Department of Environmental Quality must report to the minerals and appropriations committees by late 2018 on the council’s efficiency and staffing, at which point, presumably the Legislature can decide on funding levels for year two.
Lawmakers danced around naming Ramaco Wyoming Coal Company or its proposed Brook Mine in Sheridan County in their debate over the issue Wednesday night. They aren’t allowed to use proper names on the floor. But the denied coal mining permit was central to the disagreement.
Those supporting an amendment to reinstate the funding said the cuts appeared to bully the council because of its decision. Supporters of the funding cut argued that it was not meant to abolish the Environmental Quality Council, but to reevaluate the board’s efficiency. Still, neither Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, nor Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, were shy about why they believed the council had lost its way in a debate Wednesday night.
“There was a ruling in the last year or so that sent a really negative vibe throughout the mining sector in particular, that maybe Wyoming isn’t open for business,” Miller said.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, proposed an amendment reinstating funding but keeping the council’s obligation to report to lawmakers later this year. The amendment failed by four votes.
The Environmental Quality Council has been part of state statute since 1992. It currently has two staff members that serve a seven-person board of citizens. The board is appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. Its members are not paid, but are reimbursed for travel and time. As with most state agencies, the Legislature allocates money for council’s budget every two years.
The board has two roles in Wyoming: It reviews regulations from the Department of Environmental Quality before they can go into effect, and it hears contested cases from industry and landowners.
The Brook mine fell on the council’s doorstep in early 2017. It would be the first new coal mine in Wyoming in decades, and the Department of Environmental Quality said the final mining plan met regulatory standards. Locals fought the plan over water and subsidence issues. In September, the Environmental Quality Council took an unexpected turn and ruled against the mine’s permit until the plan had been improved.
Leaving the Environmental Quality Council’s second year blank in the House budget sends a clear message, said Zwonitzer. It’s a “coercive tactic” from the Legislature.
“We wouldn’t do this to a larger agency,” he said Wednesday night. “But we’re doing it with this. Kinda small guys ... I just don’t think this is the right way to budget or to govern.”
A number of other lawmakers added their criticism of the funding cut, or simply voiced support for the council’s role in Wyoming.
Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, whose husband is a member of the Environmental Quality Council, said she’d had a “front row seat” to how the council is run. This funding decision, she said, comes out of left field.
“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.
Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, noted that the council is key to maintaining Wyoming’s control over environmental issues.
Federal authority over water, mining and land regulations can be ceded to a state if certain conditions are met. The council provides an avenue for public protest that is part of that federal agreement giving the state control, he said.
“Put the fox in the henhouse if you choose,” Barlow said, of potentially giving control back to the feds.
Landowners and companies can dispute what they believe violates their rights by turning to the Environmental Quality Council, he said.
“As a landowner, when I’m trying to protect my property rights, I think that’s pretty damn important,” he said.
An independent body
The Brook mine controversy was largely the work of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner’s group based in Sheridan whose members live and recreate near the proposed mine site.
Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the resource council, said in an interview Thursday that the effect of the House’s proposal is unclear. But it doesn’t bode well for the state, she said.
“This is meddling with the affairs of the agency in a really scary way for the precedent it could set for future decision making for the Environmental Quality Council,” she said.
That body’s independence from state regulators led to the Brook mine decision, which favored the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
During the hearing, Anderson largely disagreed with the state regulators that had approved the mining plan. The board was an independent overseer of that conflict, she said.
Members of the Environmental Quality Council were tied up in a hearing Thursday. Chairwoman Meghan Lally said she had not reviewed Wednesday night’s debate and could not comment until she had.
Those in support of funding changes did not deny the importance of the board’s role, but held to their belief that it needed review.
Burkhart said the Environmental Quality Council needs to be as effective as possible because of its place in the federal-state balance of regulatory power.
“Yea, we’re making a statement here,” he said of the proposal to review the council’s funding. “Right the ship and sail along the straight line.”
Miller asked lawmakers if they wanted to be friendly to business or not, because if industry goes outside of Wyoming, or outside of the U.S., there will likely be fewer environmental protections for that development, not more.
Zwonitzer had opened Wednesday’s debate requesting an explanation for why the funding cuts weren’t the punitive move they appeared to be.
“I think you heard the rationale right there,” he said in closing. He again alluded to the Ramaco case without naming the company. “It’s not our role to be the police of those decisions.”
Both the House and the Senate are crafting budget bills. Those two versions will have to be combined to the satisfaction of both sides, before a final bill is sent to Gov. Matt Mead to be signed into law.
The governor could veto portions of the final bill, but a veto decision can also be overturned by a two-thirds vote from lawmakers.