You are the owner of this page.
A2 A2
Wyoming lawmakers scrap lower speeding fines, citing concern over deaths and education funding

CHEYENNE — Citing concerns about increased traffic fatalities and a loss of funding for public schools, lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee decided to scrap a plan that would have significantly lowered fines for speeding on state highways.

House Bill 12 was originally intended to simplify Wyoming’s uniform bond schedule used to write traffic tickets. The fee reductions came later. But at a committee meeting Tuesday morning, a representative of the Wyoming Highway Patrol expressed concern over what impact lower fines would have on road safety.

“We do see that speeds are generally directly involved in fatalities that we investigate,” said WHP administrator Col. Kebin Haller.

The committee was considering reducing fines for driving 5 miles over the speed limit to $20 and cap all possible fines at $800, down from the current $1,000 threshold.

Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, moved to amend the legislation to remove the reduction in fees while leaving the simplification of the bond schedule intact.

“Higher fines are a disincentive to speeding and will have a direct effect on the number of fatalities in this state,” Pelkey said.

(The amendment involved some percentage adjustments that left several lawmakers on the committee, mostly composed of lawyers, stumped. Committee chair Dan Kirkbride, R-Chugwater, was disconcerted. “Attorneys — a troubled group with math,” he said.)

Lowering the speeding fines would also cost the state $1.5 million over the coming budget cycle, according to a fiscal analysis by the Legislative Service Office. Those dollars go toward public schools in Wyoming. The Legislature is currently grappling with an $850 million deficit, about half of which comes from accounts earmarked for education.

“I’m very uncomfortable with this bill’s impact on education,” Pelkey said before his amendment to remove the fee reduction passed.

Several of the committee’s more conservative Republican lawmakers opposed the move to leave the fee level intact.

“I only support this bill because it lowers the fees, so I will be voting no for the amendment — and the bill if (the amendment) passes,” said Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Dubois. He was joined by Reps. Bo Biteman and Mark Jennings, both Sheridan County Republicans.

But Pelkey’s amendment passed and the committee voted to move the remaining bond schedule simplifications. The bill will now be considered by the full House, where more amendments can be imposed.

Arch Coal reports increased profits, stable production for Powder River Basin coal

Arch Coal, owner of the mammoth Black Thunder mine outside Wright, increased profits last year, and officials expect production in the Powder River Basin to remain stable in 2018.

One of the three large coal companies in Wyoming to file for Chapter 11 during the downturn, Arch made $2.3 billion in revenue its first full year out of bankruptcy, it reported Tuesday.

The St. Louis-based firm finished out 2017 with $238.5 million in net earnings.

The final quarter of the year was also positive for Arch, with an $81.3 million profit, in part due to a $34.8 million tax benefit made possible by the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the company reported Tuesday.

“We are proud of the financial results achieved in 2017,” said John W. Eaves, Arch’s chief executive officer in a statement.

Eaves said the firm was well positioned to take advantage of improvements in the international market, both in thermal coal and metallurgical coal — a coal not found in Wyoming that is largely used in steel production.

The CEO also credited Arch as anticipating “the eventual recovery in domestic thermal markets.”

Cheap natural gas has whittled down the coal industry in recent years and was one of the key factors that caused the coal bust of 2015 and 2016.

Wyoming provides the lion’s share of coal for electricity in the country and its large coal firms have noted the need to adapt operations in the Powder River Basin to meet changing demands in the market.

Companies have recently noted the particular challenge of unloading their lower-heat coal from Wyoming.

Cloud Peak Energy, a Gillette-based firm that operates the Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines, cited trouble justifying production of its lower heat-content coal, during a call with investors following the third quarter.

However, Arch was one of the few firms to report that it had practically sold out of its low-heat coal from the Powder River Basin in the fall.

Arch’s coal sales in 2017 fell by about 2.2 million tons due to weak demand, an overstock of coal and a late start to the winter, the company reported Tuesday.

Though stockpiles of coal have fallen since the glut that contributed to the downturn, Arch reported a drawdown in the overstock since January. Its outlook for the Powder River Basin remained positive.

“Arch continues to believe that U.S. generators have a significant amount of tonnage to buy for the remainder of 2018, and expects increased activity as we progress through the first half of the year,” the company reported Tuesday.

Peabody Energy, which reported its earnings last week, also announced strong profits, but called for a moderate decrease in production in Wyoming for the year ahead, anticipating reduced demand due to coal plant closures. Cloud Peak reports its fourth quarter results and 2017 earnings Thursday.

Two-Elk developer guilty of fraud receives 7th sentencing delay

Michael J. Ruffatto’s fate in court was delayed again this week, the seventh time a district judge has continued the failed Two Elk developer’s sentencing hearing.

Ruffatto pleaded guilty in 2016 to defrauding the federal government out of millions meant for feasibility studies and engineering work to build a grand carbon research facility in Campbell County.

The idea of Two Elk lingered for nearly two decades, despite little work taking place on the property, before Ruffatto came up on charges of sending fake invoices to the federal government in 2016.

Instead of spending federal grant money on carbon research, the 72-year-old lawyer funded a lavish lifestyle of foreign travel, expensive clothes and a home in Colorado, court dockets showed.

Prosecutors requested jail time and supervised probation last year, but Ruffatto’s lawyers pleaded advanced age and a will to pay back the federal government for the money owed.

By mid-2017, Ruffatto had paid back $3.7 million and owed another $2 million.

The U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh allowed for the seventh continuance on the sentencing hearing last week. The hearing is now set for April 18.

In the meantime, the ghostly Two Elk property may be home to a new coal facility in northern Wyoming, where a group of investors are planning to develop a coal drying plant that proponents say would enhance Wyoming coal, and increase its value.