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A train approaches Black Thunder coal mine outside Wright on March 29. Though coal has been in decline, a think tank said carbon dioxide emissions likely rose in 2018.

Carbon dioxide emissions have been on the decline nationally over the last decade as coal plants have shuttered and natural gas has replaced that carbon-rich power source in the electricity sector.

But 2018 was likely the first time in three years that emissions rose year over year, according to the Rhodium Group, a think tank that released a research note on emissions Tuesday.

Electricity demand ticked up due to economic growth. The rise was enough that even with coal consumption’s decline, carbon dioxide emissions shot past the previous year. Based on preliminary reports on energy consumption, Rhodium estimates that carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, with a nearly 2 percent rise in the power sector alone.

As debates over green energy ripple through a new Democratic-majority U.S. House of Representatives and the Trump administration continues to wrangle with Obama-era energy regulations meant to combat climate change, Wyoming remains uniquely vulnerable to the political and market outcomes of these debates.

Despite a sour tone over climate change in the Cowboy State, where lawmakers spent years fighting the Clean Power Plan — a coal-focused attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions nationally — emissions persist as an unwelcome challenge.

“It is unclear the pace at which the traditional sources of energy that Wyoming produces ... will decline,” said Trevor Houser, a Wyoming native and partner at the Rhodium Group. “But it is incredibly clear that they will decline.”


Though a unique year for emissions that will likely not repeat in 2019, rising emission is the opposite of what the U.S. needs to do, Rhodium argues.

To address the more catastrophic outcomes of climate change, and meet the goals laid out by the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.S. needs to cut energy-related carbon dioxide emission by about 2.6 percent annually over the next seven years, the research note states.

Carbon dioxide emissions fell between 2007, a peak year, and 2015 by about 12 percent.

“It’s important not to lose sight of the progress we’ve made in reducing emissions,” Houser said, crediting the rise of natural gas, which was long considered a transitional fuel away from coal. Continuing to reduce emissions remains possible, if there is policy to that effect nationally, he said.

“It just gets harder every year,” he said.

Transportation, which surpassed electricity in 2016 as the sector responsible for the greatest carbon dioxide emissions, remained the worst emitter last year, according to Rhodium.

The dialogue on emissions is often, unfairly, focused on the electricity sector, which only accounts for about one-quarter of the country’s contribution to greenhouse gasses, Houser said.

From transportation to aviation and construction, other sectors of the economy have a role to play in meeting the standards set by the Paris Climate Agreement — an accord that Trump has said the U.S. has no intention of meeting, but that policy wonks and environmental groups still use as a standard for progress.

“There is still a lot of policy work to be done to develop cleaner energy technologies in those sectors and then deploy them in the market,” he said.

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for about three-fourths of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S, according to Rhodium.


Some disagree that fossil fuels are, or should be, under this political pressure.

The focus on energy, and fossil fuels, in relation to climate change ignores the importance of these sectors in the U.S. economy, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based industry group.

“The environmental groups want to keep it in the ground,” she said. “But the bottom line is the reason people use natural gas, oil and coal, is it is the foundation that keeps the economy moving. … Until there is an alternative people are going to continue to use oil and gas and coal.”

The role of the federal government for Sgamma is nil. Markets should dictate the use of these different fuels, she said, not policy. Though there have been louder voices in favor of green energy since the recent elections, the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives won’t be able to move legislation through the Senate or across the president’s desk, she said.


Wyoming, with its small population, is not one of the top states in terms of emissions.

Yet Wyoming is an energy state, undergirding the coal for power industry and providing both natural gas and crude oil in the national market. Those three industries, two if oil and gas are considered a single sector, account for the majority of Wyoming’s revenue, local and state school funding, and a significant portion of its jobs.

The writing is on the wall for coal, said Houser. But those other fossil fuels will also face decline, he said.

Wyoming can’t control that, and it can’t dictate how gradual or rapid that transition takes place, Houser said. The best return on the state’s investment in terms of time, money and effort, is in diversifying the economy, Houser said.

“If you are in Wyoming, you’ve got to focus on what you can control,” Houser said. “What they cannot control is the pace at which the world moves away from coal, oil and gas.”

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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