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.