Senate lawmakers voted Friday to restore the budget for an environmental review board that risks losing funding over a controversial coal mine decision last fall.
Last week the House voted to withhold money from the Environmental Quality Council in its second year, but senators put the money back in their version of the budget.
Those who supported the cut argued that the Environmental Quality Council had lost its way. For evidence, they said the Council had denied a coal permit last year despite the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality approving the mining plan. The second-year funding would be evaluated after review.
Opponents said the Legislature shouldn’t be meddling in the decision of the Council, a seven-member board of volunteers appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate that hears appeals from industry and citizens on environmental decisions.
The elephant in the room concerning the funding is the proposed Brook Mine in Sheridan County. After state regulators gave preliminary approval to the mining plan put forth by Ramaco Wyoming Coal Company last year, landowners appealed to the Department of Environmental Quality. They argued the company had not done its due diligence in investigating environmental effects of mining in the area.
The dispute was passed onto the Environmental Quality Council, whose board decided in favor of the landowners and against the state regulators’ approval. The council instructed the company to improve the plan’s environmental protections before resubmitting it.
Lawmakers in the House criticized that decision multiple times last week.
Arguments on both sides of the debate were similar in the Senate on Friday to ones made by members of the House.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said nixing the funding was reactionary.
“There was a decision at the council last fall that made some people angry, and the anger bubbled up into the Appropriations Committee,” he said. “Mr. President, you and I both know that is probably not the best way to handle an appellate agency that has such an important role in our state.”
Defending the cut, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said it was a way to review the council’s staffing, its role and its efficiency.
“This was not meant to be mean,” he said.
There are two budget bills in Cheyenne right now: one from the House and one from the Senate, both originating from the Joint Appropriations Committee. Lawmakers from the Appropriations Committee decided to zero-out the second year of the council’s budget, pending a review.
Each side of the Legislature has an opportunity to add or subtract from its version of the budget bill. The House and Senate’s combined version will be sent to the governor to greenlight funding for Wyoming in 2018 and 2019.
With the two sides in disagreement over the Environmental Quality Council’s budget, the issue will be handled in conference committee.
Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, spoke up in the debate Friday, not to offer an opinion on the funding but to add context, he said. Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee were considering whether to restore the Council to its original role as an arm of the Department of Environmental Quality, staffed by members of the department, he said.
“Now there is an argument to be made that that would staunch the independence of the EQC, and it’s a valid argument to make,” he said.
The landowner’s group that won an appeal to the Environmental Quality Council over the Brook Mine made that point in a Star-Tribune interview last week.
Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, argued that the funding cut was meant to intimidate the Environmental Quality Council and that placing the independent board under the Department of Environmental Quality challenged its ability to make decisions that check the choices of the Department.
Case, in arguing to restore funding Friday, pointed out that it is largely industry that appeals to the council, not environmental groups. Meanwhile, Driskill said the decision was not an attempt to kill the independent board, but to improve it.
“It will not go away,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how it is funded.”
The Senate voted 17 to 12 in Case’s favor.