Energy regulation and climate change have failed to dominate this presidential election cycle, with controversies over emails and lewd remarks overshadowing policy issues.
Yet the next president’s energy policy is key to the direction of the Wyoming economy.
Oil, gas and coal provide the state with the bulk of its cash and have swelled a rainy day account with savings meant for lean years. Those industries have also built Wyoming schools and employ thousands of Wyoming workers.
However, dependency on oil, gas and coal has made the last few years difficult, as prices in all three markets plummeted and state and local governments quickly shaved budgets to survive.
All of this makes the decision on Nov. 8 extremely important for Wyoming and particularly its coal industry, which has experienced intense pressure from natural gas competition, 30-year price lows and potential regulations that could hinder the market’s rebound.
A closer look at the two candidates’ position on energy shows two paths for Wyoming coal. In one scenario, the state slowly deviates from the traditional fuel source. In the other, regulations that have added pressure to the market could be rolled back.
The two candidates
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has promised to continue many Obama administration policies that seek to reduce emissions and move toward more renewable energy sources in the country’s future.
Republican nominee Donald Trump’s energy platform is primarily about deregulation, including a promise to kill the Clean Power Plan, which is under consideration by the courts.
Under the Clean Power Plan, production of coal from Western states could fall by 155 million tons between 2015 and 2040, according to the Energy Information Administration. Two-thirds of Western coal comes from the Powder River Basin in northern Wyoming and Montana.
But all candidates offer promises. Experts interpret what they mean.
Where influence matters
Both candidates will have extensive influence, from executive orders to setting policy for U.S. agencies, said Rob Godby, director of the Energy Economics and Policies Center at the University of Wyoming.
It is not so much what Trump would do as what he would undo that affects the coal industry.
Trump would have the ability to move back on regulations, including regulations on federal lands like the coal lease moratorium or water standards that affect mining, Godby said.
The effect of deregulation could incentivize the building of power plants that use coal and be a boon in years to come, said Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette.
The possibility of regulations on coal has made the electricity market think in terms of natural gas in its long-term plans, he said.
“What if for the next eight years the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] regulations were all thrown out the window?” Von Flatern said. “You want to build a coal-fired power plant — the plans that have been shelved, you could say ‘Hey, let’s pull them out. We can get permits now. We can build now. We don’t have to worry about our CO2 emissions.’”
That would offer a market for coal for years to come, he said.
“That is the difference [Trump] would make,” he said.
“Without a doubt, a vote for Hillary will be to unemploy a good share of my constituency. The goal of Sec. Clinton is to go to renewables only – that’s her eventual goal. By voting for her, you are basically agreeing that in the future we will be all renewables. That’s 20, 30, 40 years out, but you are basically starting the process today.”
There is consensus on Clinton’s plan. Clinton would be business as usual, Godby said.
And that means continuing in the direction of regulations that affect energy production.
Clinton will likely continue the move from traditional energy sources by setting the agenda for federal agencies, supporting the Paris climate agreement and continuing to push for the Clean Power Plan. In the short term, her presidency could be a boon for natural gas, further pressuring the coal sector – natural gas’ main competitor. Eventually, Clinton has promised investment in renewables.
What they can’t promise
Both candidates have made claims that would require more than the word of the next president to keep.
Trump has made a number of promises in regard to revitalizing the market. He has promised more jobs, more production in all markets. But that is not how the market functions, Godby said.
“You can’t bring back coal jobs and gas jobs. It’s been natural gas that’s hurt coal,” he said. “Those sorts of dynamics haven’t been fully spelled out, other than he says he would eliminate regulations that actually work against these sectors. Then of course on the manufacturing side it’s going to be a trade argument that causes all these jobs to re-emerge.”
Von Flatern echoed those sentiments. Trump cannot fix the downturn. Even the coal lease moratorium means little right now, because there are no buyers for coal reserves, he said.
Clinton, on the other hand, has said she would offer federal assistance to communities transitioning away from coal, largely by offering federal dollars for retraining workers. She’s also promised a program for schools in those communities, where federal money would make up the difference from diminished industry revenue.
Those promises are problematic, as they would require congressional budgetary approval for her to make good on her word, Godby pointed out.
It is likely that the Senate and House will be divided, so no promise depending on congressional support is going to be a shoo-in, he said.
For coal communities, Clinton’s promise of help is more insult than assurance.
What coal communities hear is a promise to end their mining, Von Flatern said.
Party loyalty trumps issues
Yet the presidential platforms, even on issues of supreme importance locally, aren’t as relevant as some would believe, said Andrew Garner, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming.
Garner studies voting habits, elections and comparative politics.
“What we know about polarization is that party identification is the single best predictor of how people vote,” he said. “It’s the single best predictor of how people view the candidates and the issues themselves. Issues actually matter a lot less than most people think they do.”
People are more likely to adjust their views on an issue than on their party or political identity, he said.
Other factors, like Wyoming’s economic troubles of late, generally don’t change that rule, he said.
It’s likely to affect the voting pattern by making voters more polarized, blaming the state’s economy on decisions and actions of a liberal White House, he said.
The reverse would be true as well if liberals were under a conservative administration.
But party lines are relevant in this election for another reason: the open Supreme Court seat, said Godby.
“Right now we’ve had a lot of split decisions on environmental issues that affect energy production, and under a Clinton administration I think you’d expect that the current vacancy would be filled by a liberal,” he said. “You’d probably have a majority – more often have a majority — on issues pertaining to climate or energy regulation that would be in favor of expanded regulation.”
What’s next for Wyoming?
The race has narrowed as Nov. 8 approaches, with many polls suggesting a Clinton victory, though a number of states are wavering.
If Clinton makes it to the White House, Wyoming will face changes even decades from now.
The projection says there will be a slow decline in the coal market for Wyoming’s revenue in the next few decades, said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie.
“We absolutely need to be doing more to diversify and use the coal for value added purpose,” he said. “We need to look at totally non-energy markets like information technology, biotechnology and manufacturing, the kind of things that don’t necessarily rely on coal, oil and gas.”
Von Flatern pointed to investment in projects like the Integrated Test Center in Gillette as a way to continue using carbon in alternative ways.
However, nothing will fully replace what the industry has been for Wyoming, he said.
“It will take a review of our taxing structure before we mature, grow up and face reality,” Von Flatern said. “We need to re-look at our taxing structure, to be like other states that have an income stream that is relatively steady.”