Miners, politicians and local business owners spoke of coal like they would an old friend, a Wyoming character both dependable and indispensable.
Biologists, environmentalists and students, on the other hand, listed coal’s sins. The industry is dying, they say, and they aren’t mourning.
After tears, speeches and emotional pleas, a Tuesday hearing on the Clean Power Plan in Gillette ended much as it began, with two sides that don’t agree.
The Gillette meeting was the final of four public listening sessions held from West Virginia to San Francisco. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were more Wyoming opponents of the Clean Power Plan than supporters.
Wyoming public leaders, western environmental groups and employees of Wyoming coal companies trotted out familiar arguments for and against the Obama-era measure that appears headed for the chopping block. More than 200 people attended the Gillette meeting, with 134 who planned to speak.
Supporters of the plan argued that climate change is real and that coal is a dying industry that exacerbates global warming. Some questioned the effectiveness of the Clean Power Plan in achieving climate goals, wondering if it was worth the economic distress. Opponents of the regulation pointed to coal’s history of driving affordable electricity and jobs in places like Gillette.
Don Curtis, a manager at coal giant Peabody Energy, said his family was lucky. He and his wife have good-paying jobs in the coal industry, but both the family’s coal jobs and their private businesses in coal country were at risk from the Clean Power Plan.
“I feel it is a cost America cannot afford,” he said of the plan’s likely effects.
Meanwhile, another Wyomingite said between the Clean Power Plan’s protection of the environment and the state’s desire to hold onto the coal economy, continuing to embrace coal was the greater risk.
“Given our state’s reliance on fossil fuels, the Clean Power Plan will have consequences,” said Shannon Anderson, a lawyer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “But the plan also creates opportunity for coal mine reclamation jobs, renewable energy and diversifying our state’s economy and tax base.”
Gillette is the center of the largest coal producing region in the country, the Powder River Basin, which supplies about 40 percent of the thermal coal burned in the U.S. for power.
Although the regulations would target carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power, the real risk in Wyoming was to coal mining.
The Clean Power Plan has been hated by many in coal country since it was finalized in 2015. State economists forecasted a 25 to 50 percent drop in Wyoming coal production, each ton representing workers lost.
The plan, currently held at bay in the courts, never came into effect. Coal country suffered anyway, losing about one-quarter of its average production between 2015 and 2017 as a result of cheap natural gas competition and indebted companies that fell into bankruptcy. Promises from President Donald Trump to repeal the Clean Power Plan and restore coal jobs held weight in Wyoming.
“It’s critical that Washington hears directly from the people here today from Wyoming,” said Sen. John Barrasso on Tuesday morning. “The plan risked devastating communities throughout the state.”
Wyoming leaders came out in force echoing Barrasso, supporting the EPA’s direction, as long as that direction is away from the Clean Power Plan.
Gov. Matt Mead, Sen. Mike Enzi and governor-hopeful Mark Gordon each spoke of the importance of Wyoming’s coal industry.
Gordon, a rancher from Buffalo and Wyoming state treasurer, said the Clean Power Plan was a “reckless” move by the Obama administration.
“The economy of the United States has rested upon coal’s broad shoulders for more than a century,” he said. “I applaud the EPA for recognizing that the Clean Power Plan was a significant departure from what Congress intended under the Clean Air Act.”
Democrat Mary Throne, also vying to replace Gov. Matt Mead later this year, said the Clean Power Plan was a faulty approach to addressing emissions.
“Coal is not the enemy,” she said, calling for a replacement.
A number of students from universities in Colorado spoke with emotional fervor in favor of regulating carbon dioxide, noting their love of the outdoors, fear of climate change’s impact on their future and a robust distaste for Administrator Scott Pruitt’s leadership of the EPA.
Other appeals were less scripted, less political. A host of Montana moms advocated for keeping the plan. One spoke of miscarriages that she said may be attributed to poor air and water quality. Many noted the increased fire damage in recent years that they attributed to climate change.
A young woman from the Navajo Nation of Arizona broke down in tears speaking of her grandfather, a former coal miner who had retired in ill health.
He died Tuesday morning, she said.
Former Environmental Protection Agency employees spoke in favor of the plan, or of improving it.
Joni Teter, of Save EPA, said the Clean Power Plan creates an incentive for clean coal technology, which Wyoming has a history of supporting and investing in.
“Wyoming has staked its future on clean coal,” she said. But without the Clean Power Plan, the market incentive to invest in clean coal disappears, she added.
“Regulations are not the barrier,” she said. “The market is.”
Gillian Malone, of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, came in with support of the Clean Power Plan and some criticism of Wyoming’s loyalty to coal.
Emissions are falling in large part due to the increase in renewable energy, she said. The Clean Power Plan offers a gradual adjustment to reduce carbon emissions that Wyoming could meet. Meanwhile, the state could benefit from the growth in cleaner energy industries like wind, she said.
“Like it or not, it’s the direction we are moving as a nation,” Malone said. “Despite a tremendous wind potential in Wyoming, we have placed virtually all of our eggs in the fossil fuel basket, because it was easy to do so.”
A few noted skepticism of climate science, saying carbon dioxide is “part of the cycle of life,” but for many opponents of the Clean Power Plan, the argument wasn’t whether climate change was real but whether the plan’s target on reducing emissions from coal power would effectively slow global warming.
That argument was often repeated by coal miners and local politicians.
JD Peterson, whose Helena, Montana, drone business lost contracts during the fossil fuel downturn of recent years, said the cost of the Clean Power Plan on the economy seemed greater to him than the environmental benefit of a fraction of a degree in global temperatures.
“We’re sacrificing all these jobs and economic opportunities,” he said. “I never understood that.”
Doug Benevento, administrator of the EPA’s region 8, which includes Wyoming, said in an interview Tuesday morning that questioning the effectiveness of the Clean Power Plan given its economic impacts was a reasonable criticism.
“You ask the question, are we doing something here that is going to have an impact on the environmental issue identified or are we merely costing a lot of jobs,” he said. “That’s a big policy question that is going to have to be answered.”
Benevento noted some of the testimonies Tuesday morning that pointed to weak gains on climate.
“The impact of the rule on global climate change would appear to be negligible,” he said.
Despite a political promise from the Trump administration to repeal the Clean Power Plan, Benevento said the jury is still out on the final decision on the regulations.
The Environmental Protection Agency has an obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, whether that will be done through the Clean Power Plan or some other measure was not clear Tuesday.
The code of ethics for public servants in Casper, which regulates how officials and employees behave as representatives of the city, will likely be repealed and replaced in the coming months to improve its clarity.
The current code is problematic because of its ambiguous wording, according to City Attorney John Henley, who reviewed it after some council members expressed a similar concern.
“There was a lot of language that I don’t think would be upheld in a court… It seems to me that it would just be impossible to actually make a case that [public servants] had violated these,” he said during the Casper City Council’s special work session last week.
Henley explained that the code uses general terms, such as stating that public servants should avoid a “conflict of interest” or becoming a “source of embarrassment to the city.” Both of these broad statements could be interpreted in various ways.
The attorney advised replacing it with a new ordinance that provides clearer definitions and closely follows the Wyoming Statue addressing government ethics.
Given that there was still an empty seat on the Council, the group decided to wait until they had nine members again to discuss creating and establishing a new ordinance.
Retired Natrona County judge Michael Huber was selected last week to represent Ward 1 and was sworn in on Tuesday. He replaces former Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay, who unexpectedly resigned earlier this month due to personal and professional reasons.
But the council did agree Wednesday that the current ordinance should be repealed.
The new measure should allow the Council to issue private or public reprimands to council members who act improperly, said Councilman Jesse Morgan.
Vice Mayor Charlie Powell noted that the Council does need some rules to govern public officials’ behavior.
“The standard that someone must be convicted of a felony is an impossibly high standard,” he said. “There is behavior, and you’d have to be in the middle of it to understand it, but there is the behavior that calls for removal.”
The Council has previously struggled with what some members considered ethical or behavioral problems.
In August, Morgan asked the Council to issue a formal reprimand to Huckabay for what he described as inappropriate behavior.
During a Council work session, Huckabay lashed out at Morgan when he stated he had heard from law enforcement officials that bar patrons in Casper tend to become overly intoxicated.
Morgan had learned this information while attending a community panel on sexual assault, which led Huckabay to conclude he was implying that alcohol consumption leads to assault. The councilman fiercely denied this assumption, but the feud escalated after Huckabay posted about the incident on social media.
“It’s blown up online saying I support rape,” Morgan previously told the Star Tribune. “I can’t even try to make sense of it in my head because it doesn’t compute.”
Morgan asked that the councilwoman receive a formal reprimand but withdrew that request after she publicly stated that she regretted how she handled the situation. She explained at a meeting that she struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder because she has experienced an assault.
Huckabay abruptly resigned earlier this month, stating that she’s moving to Utah due to “unforeseen circumstances” with her previous employer and personal family matters. A past brush with the law came to light in the days following her resignation.
Huckabay pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge involving her mother in 2012 before she served on Council. Court documents filed at the time alleged that Huckabay pushed, slapped and punched the victim, who was hospitalized for injuries that included bleeding from the head and a swollen eye.
Huckabay told the Star-Tribune that she deeply regretted the incident, and explained that she snapped during an altercation with her late mother because of her PTSD.
After learning about the incident, Morgan told the Star-Tribune that council members might want to discuss how to handle these types of situations going forward.
“For any future candidates, it would be nice to know if they have any sort of criminal background,” he said.
There were also multiple allegations of misconduct against another former councilman. Craig Hedquist resigned in 2015 and was the subject of two city-launched investigations.
One claimed he committed workplace violence when he used “fighting words” during an argument with then-city engineer Andrew Beamer. The other declared there was “clear and convincing” evidence he violated city and state conflict-of-interest laws in his dual roles as councilman and owner of Hedquist Construction, a frequent contractor for the city.
Hedquist denied those allegations and filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that City Council, Beamer and then-city manager John Patterson plotted together to remove him from office and keep his business from participating in city projects.
A judge dismissed his lawsuit last year, citing a lack of supporting evidence. Hedquist is currently appealing this decision.
WASHINGTON — The good news for President Donald Trump? His approval rating is up 7 points since last month, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The bad news? That only lifts Trump’s approval to 42 percent, low for a president at this point in his tenure.
Still, the trajectory is a welcome shift for a White House that has been battered by chaos, controversies and internal upheaval. The poll suggests that at least some of the president’s improving standing is tied to the economy and the Republican tax overhaul, which offers a glimmer of hope for GOP lawmakers who plan to make both issues the centerpiece of their efforts to maintain control of Congress in November.
Nearly half of Americans surveyed — 47 percent — say they approve of how Trump is handling the economy, his highest rating on any issue. When it comes to tax policy, 46 percent of Americans back Trump’s moves.
“Our fortunes will rise and fall with the economy and specifically with the middle-class tax cut this fall,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Bliss urged Republican candidates to view the law as “an offensive, not defensive weapon.”
One of the GOP’s challenges, however, will be keeping the economy and tax overhaul in the spotlight through the fall given the crush of other matters roiling the White House and competing for Americans’ attention. On Monday at the White House, the daily press briefing was dominated by questions about the president’s alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels, a relationship he denies. Each week has seemed to bring a new departure among the president’s closest advisers. And many days, Trump is more inclined to use his Twitter megaphone to try to discredit the investigation into possible campaign contacts with Russia than promote the tax overhaul.
Republican operatives acknowledge that even if they can break through the clutter, they still have a ways to go when it comes to explaining the $1.5 trillion tax plan to Americans. Democrats have aggressively cast the measure, which permanently slashes the tax rate for corporations and reduces taxes for the wealthiest Americans, as a boon for the rich that offers comparatively little for the middle class.
The Democratic message does appear to be breaking through with voters. Among those Americans who are familiar with the new law, 77 percent believe it helps large corporations and 73 percent say it benefits the wealthy, while 53 percent say it helps small businesses. Americans are evenly divided on whether the measure helps the middle class.
Republicans argue Democrats risk overreaching by downplaying the impact that even a small windfall from the tax bill can have for a family and individual. According to the AP-NORC poll, nearly half of those who receive a paycheck — 46 percent — say they’ve seen an increase in their take-home pay as a result of the tax law.
Heather Dilios, a 46-year-old social worker from Topsham, Maine, is among them. Dilios, a Republican, estimates she’s now taking home between $100 to $200 more per paycheck as a result of the new tax law. That’s more than she expected when Trump signed the legislation.
Dilios said it’s more than the dollar amount that’s driving her support for the law.
“It’s more about being able to keep what is rightfully mine rather than giving it to the government,” she said.
Overall, taxes and the economy are the brightest spots for Trump, who gets lower numbers from voters on a range of other issues, including his handling of North Korea (42 percent), trade (41 percent), gun control (39 percent) and the budget deficit (35 percent).
Trump has benefited from an increasingly healthy economy that has boosted consumer and business sentiment. The 4.1 percent unemployment rate is the lowest since 2000 without the same kinds of excesses that fueled that era’s tech bubble.
While Trump attributes the gains to his tax cuts and deregulation efforts, many economists say conditions so far are largely a continuation of the momentum from the gradual expansion that began during the Obama administration.
Trump’s most recent policy moves also have rattled financial markets and raised questions about the prospect of an economic slowdown. He slapped hefty tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, although his administration has issued waivers to several countries. And last week, he moved to slap $60 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to promise swift retaliation.
The full scope and impact of Trump’s proposed tariffs won’t be known for some time, but the initial reaction from Americans is decidedly mixed. The AP-NORC poll finds that 38 percent support the steel and aluminum tariffs and 29 percent are opposed.
The poll also finds that just 32 percent of Americans think the tariffs will lead to an increase in jobs, compared with 36 percent who think it will lead to a decrease. Forty percent think it will lead to an increase in consumer prices, while 39 percent think it will lead to a decrease.
State Superintendent Jillian Balow will run for re-election as Wyoming’s top education official after considering a run for governor, she announced Tuesday.
“I’m really proud of the work we’ve done in three and a half years to calm the water, to move forward in really deliberate ways,” she said. “I’m seeking re-election because that work isn’t done.”
Balow, a Republican, won decisively in 2014 and sought to steady the state Department of Education after the turbulent tenure of her predecessor, Cindy Hill. After clashing with legislators over accountability, Hill had much of her power stripped by lawmakers. Her duties were eventually restored by the Wyoming Supreme Court, and she later lost in her attempt to beat Gov. Matt Mead in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Looking back on the years since she was elected, Balow highlighted her department’s focus on local control and reaching out to groups across the state. She said that in 2016, the department had “over 500 voices in policy,” meaning people who gave comment on changing standards and on the state’s federally mandated and approved education plan.
“I’m a firm believer in local control,” she said. “We’ve moved away, in three years, from a national common core assessment to our own assessment, WYTOPP. It takes less than 1 percent of instructional time away from students and teachers.”
She ticked off her work on Wyoming’s content standards — science in particular — and her focus on post-secondary readiness, whether that be for college, the workforce or military service, as other standout moments from her first term.
Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said she wasn’t surprised Balow was running for re-election.
“I think she’s done a good job,” she said. “She’s been out and about and been a very good spokesperson for positive things in education in Wyoming.”
Vetter said the continued compliance with the federal education plan — submitted and approved as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act — and Wyoming’s new emphasis on computer science education will be pivotal for the next state superintendent.
Balow listed both as accomplishments and goals for the future should she be re-elected. She also ticked off early childhood education and bettering student transition out of high school as other future areas of emphasis.
“There are a number of early learning centers and situations across our state that aren’t necessarily what’s best for students,” she said, adding that she didn’t think universal preschool would work in Wyoming. “Ensuring quality of centers and opportunities across the state is really important.”
She added school safety as another area she plans to focus on should she be re-elected. The national debate on how best to secure and protect schools has resurfaced with renewed energy since the Feb. 14 shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
Many districts in Wyoming are considering arming staff to help protect schools, as allowed under a law passed by the Legislature last year. Balow’s department put out guidelines for how districts can arm teachers while complying with statute. On school security, Balow said she saw her and her department’s role as at least two-fold: part adviser for districts, part advocate for funding and resources.
“Right now, the conversation is pretty supercharged,” she said. “Go from school safety and security to guns right away. Gun control or arming teachers and there’s a whole lot in between there that needs to be on the table.”
Balow took over the state Education Department a year before a downturn in Wyoming’s economy set the stage for significant reductions in school funding. Not counting another, albeit smaller, round of cuts passed by the Legislature earlier this month, more than $77 million has been slashed from Wyoming schools over the past two years.
She said that while she wants to help find a long-term solution to education funding in Wyoming, she said that shouldn’t come at the cost of forgetting about students.
“I don’t discount the financial crisis that we’re in in Wyoming education. It’s really important today and tomorrow that we continue to find ways to adequately and equitably fund education,” Balow said. “ ... One of my jobs is to make sure that I’m a champion for education, and that means talking about student successes and being part of conversation about education finance but also really pushing us to find long-term solutions so it’s not issue of the day every year in the Legislature.”
Balow is running unopposed. Both she and Vetter said they had not heard of any candidates, Democrat or Republican, who were considering a run.
As for taking a shot at replacing Gov. Mead, Balow said she considered it but decided “there’s more work to be done” in her current role.
Still, she didn’t rule out running for governor in the future.
“I’ll answer that with the caveat that I chose to run for re-election because of my passion for public service and for education, not because of my political ambitions,” she said. “That said, if in four years or eight years I can translate my passion for the state into another role, that’s something I would consider.”