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A coal state used to fighting regulations grapples with what it wants from a coal-friendly administration

Those who feared the Clean Power Plan the most worried coal plants would blink out one by one, like busted bulbs on a string of Christmas lights.

But on Jan. 20, when President Donald Trump was sworn into office, those fears subsided. President Obama’s signature climate change policy disintegrated as it was tied up in courts, likely to never be implemented.

The court delays were incumbent on a new plan though, and so earlier this week, the Trump administration made a first step to building its own version.

The implications of curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants are serious for Wyoming and its coal companies, not so much because the state gets more than 90 percent of its power from coal plants – the biggest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions — but because it digs a lot of coal.

Few people in Wyoming can say with confidence what the Trump remake will look like from the advanced notice of proposed rule making that came out Monday. An advanced notice is an early signal that an agency is considering a rule and is looking for public feedback.

Some of the language suggests that if the administration were to write a regulation limiting carbon dioxide emissions, it would focus solely on power plants, as opposed to the broader limitations on state-by-state emissions under the Obama-era plan. Others see it as a strategy to keep the Clean Power Plan in a legal limbo. Environmental groups expect the slow promulgation of an industry-friendly rule that fails to alleviate concerns about climate change.

“Lots to look at but no real meat here to figure out what a plan would look like,” said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming. “It seems pretty clear the EPA plans to go back to square one.”

Wyoming’s industries and governor aren’t sure about a possible new rule, focusing more on what they don’t like about the old one.

“Looking forward, if [the Environmental Protection Agency] crafts something, what would Wyoming want to see? I can’t answer that,” said Colin McKee, policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead. “It’s premature for me to say anything because I don’t know what [the governor’s] thoughts are.”

In addition to arguing the Clean Power Plan was unlawful, the governor said that the focus should be to promote carbon capture to address coal’s emissions concerns as opposed to regulations, McKee said. That’s still his position.

The coal industry itself doesn’t have a unified stance on what it wants as a replacement, according to Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, other than its hopes for flexible rules that don’t eliminate coal.

“It’s fair to say that the carbon dioxide issue is not going away,” he said.

What the industry does want is a replacement rule that has staying power from one political administration to the next, he said.

Like the governor, Deti said the answer is in technology that captures emissions.

But some doubt the intention of this administration to craft such a long-standing rule, and see the notice published Monday as more evidence of that.

“When you look at the content (of the notice), what becomes really clear is what they are trying to do is a rule that will give industry cover to do nothing,” said Joanne Spalding, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club.

Most of the issues brought up recall lingering debates, like which section of the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency the right to regulate carbon dioxide, she said.

“All of this is rehashing issues that were raised (in the public process),” she said.

Sam Kalen, co-director of the Center for Law and Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming, said the notice is likely a strategy that buys EPA some time before it has to come up with a rule.

“Optically, it helps justify keeping, effectively, the Clean Power Plan from ever becoming operational,” Kalen said. “This allows them to illustrate in a litigation setting and in the public setting, ‘We aren’t ignoring it, we are doing something.’”

It’s less clear what exactly that something is.

Like the Sierra Club lawyer, Kalen said the notice does point to a potential return of legal debates that have come up before. The notices emphasizes state flexibility and may point to questions from this administration about the legality of regulating beyond the power plant level – a key disagreement between the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law and the interpretation from states like Wyoming. The notice even touches on the endangerment finding, the legal foundation for regulating carbon dioxide.

What it doesn’t do is offer a clear glimpse of what a replacement of the Clean Power Plan will look like, Kalen said.

“I think that we really don’t know yet, to be honest.”

Casper's new police chief has summited the highest peaks in the Continental U.S. Now, he's taking on a new challenge

Casper’s new police chief was waiting for a helicopter in the Colorado wilderness when an idea blossomed that would take him across the country and the world.

Keith McPheeters was a Farmington, New Mexico, SWAT team sergeant at the time, and was part of a group that was searching for a suspected cop killer. While waiting for the helicopter, he and his fellow officers decided to honor the killer’s victim. They later climbed Denali — the highest point in the United States — in memory of Cortez, Colorado police officer Dale Claxton.

Since then, he’s summited peaks in every state except for Hawaii.

Now, McPheeters is looking forward to climbing Cloud Peak when the weather warms up. He was named Casper’s chief of police in early December.

Just like a mountaineering expedition, he faces some challenges. McPheeters, who rose to deputy chief in Farmington, takes over a department that experienced a tumultuous year. Morale issues became public in April and the previous chief was dismissed a month later. Since then, the department oversaw a huge influx of visitors during the eclipse and then launched an ambitious community outreach effort this fall.

“The police department has been in a period of angst,” McPheeters said. “Not knowing who the new leader was and what direction he or she would take the department.”

McPheeters doesn’t plan on determining that direction alone. He is meeting one-on-one with sworn officers and employees to help define goals for the department.

“I think that every man and woman of the department ought to have some say in it,” he said.

Teamwork on Denali

Leading teams into the mountains has taught McPheeters about teamwork, the chief said.

The group’s first attempt at Denali came up short. He said he was responsible for that failed attempt at the summit by relying too heavily on his own efforts. The experience made McPheeters take an introspective look at his leadership style and move to a more team-focused approach.

The team’s second attempt at the summit, in 2001, was a “textbook success,” he said.

Since 1998, McPheeters has summited the highest peak in every continental state, as well as on four continents. All of those summits have been completed in honor of police officers that died in the line of duty.

He’s completed those summits as a member of Cops on Top, a nonprofit he founded that sends climbers to mountain peaks across the world in memory of fallen officers.

Stu Frink, a retired Washington State Patrol officer and seasoned mountaineer, contacted McPheeters in 1999 after reading about the organization in a periodical for family members of slain officers. Frink’s brother was killed while working for the patrol in 1993. The two men joined two other officers to summit Grand Teton in September of that year.

The two men “have pretty much done something every single year” since, Frink said.

McPheeters’ mountaineering experience overlaps well with police work, according to Frink. Whether commanding police officers or holding a rope tethering a climber to the mountain, teamwork, trust and a goal-oriented attitude are essential.

“Guys like Keith,” Frink said, “I definitely trust them with the end of the rope.”

The cost of crime

On Tuesday, the chief spoke more extensively on the subject of teamwork, saying he plans to work with local organizations to achieve two goals for Casper: improve citizens’ quality of life and reduce their cost of living.

The police department can help on both fronts, McPheeters said.

“Casper is already exceptionally safe,” according to the chief. However, the police department will work to further drop the crime rate and make Casper a safer town.

McPheeters said he is still identifying areas for improvement, but the department will begin by targeting “low hanging fruit” such as auto burglaries. Those burglaries would be drastically reduced if citizens locked their cars more regularly, he said. The police department will aim to educate the public on the issue to change public habits.

As crime drops, insurers will spend less repairing and replacing crime-related damage. That will lower the cost of car, life and homeowner’s insurance as well as prices at local stores, McPheeters said.

McPheeters said Wednesday that he would be happy to meet with anyone that has hopes or concerns for the department. He’ll be starting with school officials and social service providers.

The department will also be rolling out recommendations related to an outside review of the police department that was completed this fall, he said. The department’s command staff met this week and went through the recommendations, prioritizing them.

McPheeters declined to say what recommendations were at the top of the department’s list, but pointed out that some of them had already been implemented.

Two officers were recently promoted to sergeant, and a sergeant to lieutenant, filling gaps in the command structure as recommended by the review team.

Meanwhile, a police initiative called “Our Community” that focuses on connecting officers with citizens was rolled out earlier this fall. That initiative also includes recommendations spelled out in the independent review, like making a complaint form available on the department’s website.

McPheeters plans to continue the community-oriented approach, he said. He called for citizens to “actively engage” the police department.

Regional and family ties

The chief grew up in Rexburg, Idaho — an hour and a half west of the Wyoming border — and has never lived outside of the Mountain West.

Tonya, the chief’s wife of 31 years, came to Casper for the announcement of her husband as chief. She is back in New Mexico now, working as a human resources director, while their son finishes his final year of high school.

The couple’s three daughters live in Texas and Utah.

McPheeters’s family will join him in Casper after the summer, he said. He hopes to draw a hunting tag that would allow him to hunt bighorn sheep in the fall.

Until then, Cloud Peak is waiting.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Beginning Sunday night, a winter storm dropped heavy snow on the Casper area.

K-12 enrollment drops in Wyoming following energy bust

Enrollment fell in many school districts across Wyoming this year, with particularly low elementary numbers in Natrona County.

Statewide enrollment stands at 92,976 students — a drop of 285 compared to last fall’s 93,261. Natrona County — the second largest district in the state — lost 35 students over the past academic year. District officials have said for months that elementary enrollment had taken a hit, which they speculated was caused by the recent energy downturn. The numbers bear out that drop: Second and third grade were among the lowest for enrollment in the district.

This school year is the second in a row to experience an enrollment decline, after a decade of growth. The one-year drop amounts to about 0.3 percent of the K-12 student population.

Kari Eakins, spokeswoman for the education department, and Megan Degenfelder, the chief policy officer, said that it’s difficult for them to pin down the cause of the decreases. But Rick Skatula of the Natrona County School District attributed it to the energy downturn.

None of them said the decreases in enrollment were a surprise.

“That’s very consistent with what we’ve been seeing and reporting it out,” Skatula said. “...We have folks here who are forward thinking, this is something we anticipated and have for a while.”

Natrona County dipped below 13,000 students for the first time since the 2013-14 academic year. Its enrollment this year was 12,975.

That 35-student drop can be slightly misleading. District officials have said that Natrona County’s elementary enrollment was steadily climbing before the downturn in 2015, and that bump is making its way through the higher grades. But in the lower levels, 131 students have left compared to last year, according to the state Department of Education.

Low elementary enrollment — five of seven grades saw a drop compared to last year — was a driving factor in the district’s decision to close four schools. The district had nearly 1,000 empty seats for younger students because of the drop in enrollment and new elementary buildings, which had been approved years ago.

Meanwhile, sixth through 12th grade saw a boost for all but two grade levels. That can be attributed to strong pre-bust enrollment in the elementary grades. Those students are working their way through the schools, bumping up higher grade-level enrollment.

The loss of students doesn’t just mean empty seats. The district’s funding is tied to attendance. A drop means a loss of funding, in a time when education is already losing money because of the state’s heavy reliance on the energy economy.

Educators call it the double whammy: Students leave and essentially take funding with them, and available state funding dries up.

Indeed, some energy-reliant districts have been hit even harder than Natrona County. Campbell County School District saw an increase in just five grades, and two of them by one student.

Compared to 2015-16 enrollment, 11 of 13 grades dropped in 2017-18 in Campbell County. That represents millions of dollars in funding.

Of the state’s 48 districts, 25 experienced a decline. Two were tied with their numbers from last year.

Eakins said Sweetwater County School District No. 1 lost the most students at 148, and Sweetwater No. 2 lost 88. Converse No. 2 lost more than more than 7 percent of its students. That district is indicative of the heavy toll small districts pay when students leave. Forty-five kids left Converse 2. The highest percentage loss was Washakie No. 2, at 8.9 percent or 10 students, Eakins said.