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Carbon

The Dry Fork coal-fired power plant is pictured Sep. 21, outside Gillette.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune

The reddest state in the country has never embraced regulation. And that’s especially true of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The Environmental Protection Agency rules aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal power throughout the nation to address climate change. And in coal country, its effects seemed particularly menacing.

Wyoming’s tenuous relationship with the plan came to a head, not for the first time, last month at a conference in Gillette. The agency held four public meetings across the country about whether the Clean Power Plan should be repealed. And in Wyoming, the response to that question was unsurprising: resounding support for nixing the regulation.

It’s understandable that many in Wyoming look to blame regulation for the struggle that the coal industry has faced the last few years. Some federal regulations, like one aimed at curbing mercury pollution, are linked to recent closures of older coal-burning power plants. But it’s time that coal country stop pinning its hopes on deregulation to stabilize the industry. We need to be honest with ourselves about the uncertain future of coal.

The EPA’s head, Scott Pruitt, was in coal country days after the Clean Power Plan meeting in Gillette. There he touted deregulation as a way to level the playing field and ease Wyoming’s economic hardships and promised that the war on coal was over.

But his promises ring hollow and simply provide false hope.

Because coal in Wyoming isn’t going to reach pre-bust levels, regardless of what happens to the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt isn’t doing the industry any favors by ignoring the market forces that have driven its decline. Instead, we should all be looking at alternative coal technologies, like carbon capture, to address carbon dioxide emissions and potentially instigate a new type of coal sector to help stabilize Wyoming’s economy.

Wyoming added five coal jobs since the bottom of the bust in 2016. That means that while the decline has bottomed out, more than a year into a pro-industry, anti-regulation administration, coal hasn’t recovered. Which speaks to the complexity of the issues that plague the industry. Though the pro-coal agenda may have slowed coal’s decline, it hasn’t stopped it.

That’s because coal’s real obstacle has been cheap natural gas and the rise of renewable energy.

While coal is unlikely to disappear for several decades to come – in fact, we recently reported that the industry has a small chance of remaining stable for another 30 years – it will never return with the vigor that many seem to be hoping for and that some are promising. It isn’t regulation that’s standing in coal’s way.

In fact, it’s coal that may be standing in Wyoming’s way.

The state has long needed to diversify and move away from a dependency on volatile markets. For many years, it was oil that held the promise of a bust in every boom. Now coal, which has long been the stable industry, promises uncertainty and risk too. The whims of a boom and bust economy have given Wyomingites whiplash. It’s time we say enough is enough.

We can’t do that until we start looking to the future with a clear eye. We can’t do that until we make peace with coal’s new normal. And we can’t do that until we start having honest conversations about the future of Wyoming coal.

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