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Wind turbines in Shirley Basin

Wind turbines face into the wind near Medicine Bow on Jan. 19, 2016. 

Gov. Matt Mead on Monday called for additional funding in clean coal research, a new emphasis on renewables and a review of the state’s reclamation policies.

Those initiatives headlined the updated energy strategy unveiled by the governor at a news conference in Cheyenne and reflected the dramatic change that has occurred in Wyoming’s economic landscape since Mead released his first energy plan in 2013.

Gone from the strategy was an initiative to grow new foreign markets for natural gas and coal. In its place came measures designed to confront the new economic realities facing Wyoming fossil fuels, most particularly coal.

Mead made what is now his trademark call for more funding in carbon utilization research, arguing that the discovery of an economic use for coal plant emissions could help address concerns over the fuel’s contribution to climate change.

But he added a new focus on renewables to his remarks. Wyoming, as the site of one of the largest planned wind farms in the U.S., should focus on bringing wind turbine manufacturing to the state, the governor said.

Mead, asked if the strategy represented a shift in his approach, replied, “The fact is it’s a doubling down on coal and a very good start on renewables.”

Both energy strategies look at how to do more for coal while recognizing the future role renewables are going to play for the state and country, he said.

Aides to the governor stressed the state is not giving up on coal exports, the prospects for which have dimmed amid an oversupplied market and slowing Chinese demand.

The Wyoming Infrastructure Authority has been charged with promoting foreign coal sales since the last energy strategy was announced, they noted.

Nephi Cole, a policy adviser to the governor, nevertheless acknowledged the change in Wyoming’s economic climate. The initiatives Mead outlined Monday are a response to public comments on the largest energy and environmental issues facing the state.

“We realize times do change, and they always do,” Cole said. “The framework was designed to be flexible to respond to the times.”

Policymakers will now focus on developing a specific strategy to meet the governor’s priorities, he said.

Few issues are more pressing at present than mine reclamation, with two bankrupt coal companies holding roughly $900 million in unsecured cleanup costs.

To that end, Mead said the updated strategy would include a review of Wyoming’s self-bonding program, which allows mining firms to use their assets as collateral on future cleanup costs.

The program received little scrutiny when coal companies were economically healthy. But with the federal government now asking questions about its viability, it is important for Wyoming to identify its own solutions, the governor said.

“It is not a program we want to move away from,” Mead said. “But we want to make sure that we are doing it in a way that absolutely protects the state in terms of reclamation and also, frankly, is fair to the companies.”

Much of the governor’s remarks were focused on the progress made on previous initiatives. Roughly 62 percent, or 28 of the 45 initiatives, have been completed to date.

Those include a new baseline water testing rule for oil and gas operators, a state regulatory program to assume oversight of the Wyoming uranium industry and exerting state influence on endangered species issues, where state officials notably helped persuade their federal counterparts not to list the sage grouse.

Other initiatives remain a work in progress. Mead in 2013 called for pre-permitted pipeline corridors, largely in areas where pipelines already existed. Federal officials are now conducting the environmental review needed to address the proposal, aides said.

A new flaring rule, which was recently passed by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, is now under review by the attorney general.

And it remains to be seen if the large stands of timber killed by the pine beetle in recent years could be used for biomass, a priority identified by the 2013 and 2016 strategies.

But for all the talk of initiatives new and old, the governor could not escape the realities of one of the worst busts in decades. As the news conference drew to a close, Mead was asked if his energy strategy would help improve the outlook of coal miners and oilfield workers whose perspective has been clouded by a downturn in their respective markets.

The governor said he shared the sentiment. He noted Wyoming could not control the global market for commodities. And he argued his strategy is aimed at addressing factors the state can control, positioning itself for a rebound when market conditions improve.

“I doubt that’s any solace to any individual person who’s lost their job or is going to lose their job,” Mead concluded. “But it’s the choice that is right for the state of Wyoming, to be proactive in the energy sector to make sure it can be sustained long-term.”

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Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow

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