Wyoming’s congressional delegation was fiercely critical of the most ambitious strategy to address climate change in many years, introduced last week by a handful of newcomers in Washington, D.C.
The Green New Deal – a non-binding resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives — is more of a creed than a policy. It won’t create a host of new programs or offices to carry out a mission. But it is a mission. Its writers describe a host of social and political problems and in general senses how they will be addressed. From climate change to poverty, the resolution pledges a robust national response including renewable energy investment, job creation, energy transition and community building.
As the "green" in its name suggests, the resolution lays out a vision of the country’s future without dependency on fossil fuels. The energy sources that undergirded the rise of the country to power and prominence are no longer foundational, not for jobs, power, revenue or security.
It’s not a future where Wyoming can exist as it does today. For a state dependent on its energy sector for jobs and the bulk of revenue, any number of the resolutions in the Green New Deal would cause a seismic shift in Wyoming’s existing economy.
Perhaps for this reason, the state’s leaders in D.C. criticized the deal as leftist and pledged to unmask it as such. Environmental groups celebrated an unflinching reaction to climate change and industry scoffed. Whether the deal is brash or bold, impossible or do-able, the political movement behind the Green New Deal has consequences for Wyoming.
The Green New Deal isn’t particularly new. The term, and the general concept, gained recognition after the 2008 market crash. The idea was to address a host of interrelated challenges at once and strive for economic, social and environmental reform, said Jason Shogren, Stroock Chair of Natural Resource Conservation and Management at the University of Wyoming. Shogren worked for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 2000 to 2002.
This iteration is an ambitious ask.
The resolution calls for a federal jobs guarantee with a sustainable wage, medical benefits and retirement provision for everyone in the country – an idea once championed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose aggressive “New Deal” to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression through federal action inspired the Green New Deal.
On the energy and environment front, with the central tenet of addressing climate change, the resolution is no less aggressive.
It calls for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, 100 percent clean energy in the power sector and a 10-year push to mobilize efforts toward those goals. In that time, the resolution promises diversification support and job creation “in frontline and vulnerable communities that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries.”
It is, admittedly, lofty, Shogren said. It attempts to provide jobs, eradicate poverty, stimulate the economy and address climate change in one grand effort, he said.
“It’s like trying to turn a battleship, on a dime, in a storm,” he said. “If you put all hands on deck, maybe you can pull it off.”
The ‘green’ in green
Perhaps most relevant for Wyoming is the “green” in the Green New Deal. The resolution takes a powerful swing at traditional energy: fossil fuels.
The oil and gas industry erupted in frustration and mockery after the Green New Deal went public.
PRICE Futures Group Senior Analyst Phil Flynn’s investor note Friday joked that the bill’s proponents were green with envy of the rich. American Energy Alliance’s president, Thomas Pyle, said the resolution was immoral for making false promises to people it promised to help.
The Green New Deal is a way to “advance the political agenda of the socialist wing of the Democratic party wrapped in a green bow,” Pyle said in a statement.
The notion that the deal had sinister roots in socialism was a point also made by Wyoming’s delegation to Washington.
Cory Knobel, spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, said in an email, that “it’s disturbing that these ideological extreme ideas are getting the platform that they are.”
The senator supports a free market, all-of-the-above approach to energy supply, Knobel said.
Sen. John Barrasso took a similar approach in his response. The former Casper surgeon put out a lengthy statement condemning the “radical” deal, promising dramatic spikes in the cost of electricity. But mostly it was the ideology that Barrasso, currently the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, criticized.
“It’s the first step down a dark path to socialism,” he wrote.
Rep. Liz Cheney noted in a Tuesday interview with Fox News’ Dana Perino a concern that young people favor socialism today. She criticized the Democratic Party for its swing to the left with the Green New Deal, which had not yet been revealed Tuesday.
“We’re going to make sure the American people understand how radical they are,” she said of democrats.
A short window
Connie Wilbert is hoping that Wyoming’s response to the Green New Deal is one of interest rather than hostility, particular from political leaders, she said.
Wilbert is the director of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter and said her organization supports a full transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. That’s the direction that the country is going, she said, and Wyoming will be walking the same path whether is people like it or not.
The Green New Deal is representative of the growing awareness of the serious consequences of climate change, but also of policies that can address it, Wilbert said.
“Even here in Wyoming, we are seeing that,” she said. “Climate change is happening, and we have a very short window to try and take measures.”
An unfair burden
National policy to address climate change has knocked on Wyoming’s door before.
The Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era attempt to slash carbon dioxide emissions in the power sector, was seen as a direct threat to Wyoming’s well-being.
The old plan, first proposed in 2014, is still hobbled in a court battle. As it never came into effect, a replacement by the Trump administration has been proposed, though the replacement has been broadly criticized for its own admission of achieving little. The original, however, could have eliminated up to half of the annual coal production in Wyoming, a devastating blow to communities like Gillette.
Addressing climate change has been focused, at times, on particular sectors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, while ignoring others, said Gov. Mark Gordon in a recent conversation with the Star-Tribune about carbon capture.
For years, that meant the coal industry — which provides fuel to the power sector — unfairly carried the brunt of any attempt at change, he said.
“We are all about solving climate change as long as some other bastard takes the heat,” he said of the national conversation.
Gordon has asked the Legislature to allocate $10 million toward a carbon capture project that could catch 75 percent of emissions, pre-combustion. The effort continues a legacy of Wyoming governors pressing for carbon capture.The technology, Wyoming politicians have argued for some time, will help maintain the state’s coal industry in a world where carbon dioxide emissions are increasing unacceptable to many Americans.
Despite acknowledging that Wyoming can’t control outside factors, from the governor’s perspective, a lot of the conversations nationally are impractical.
A disconnect persists between the idea of gaining on green energy and the reality of meeting energy needs. Solving the challenge of climate change is often described in terms that are more fairy tale than reality, he said.
Wyoming’s approach needs to be practical, he added.
Barrasso has also been stumping for technology and investment to address climate change and helped extend and expand a tax incentive for carbon capture research. Known for his antagonistic position toward the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal actions that pressure business, Barrasso has applauded the Trump administration for walking back on regulations like the Clean Power Plan. He’s also begun arguing recently that technology can make traditional energy clean and address concerns about climate change.
On the offense
Fairy tale or no, the Green New Deal has attracted attention.
Its unofficial spokeswoman, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, has been effective in articulating the aims of the deal and cutting through the political rhetoric, said Shogren.
Wyoming will need to pay attention, he said.
Energy has carried Wyoming for decades. But to date, the state hasn’t fully addressed the changes being pressed on its industries, such as natural gas’ unrelenting damage to the coal sector, Shogren said.
Initiatives that look at diversifying the economy have to be taken seriously and implemented, he said.
“We have to be on the offense,” he said. “We have to be ahead of the curve or the coal will be left in the ground and we’ll all be finding something else to do.”