Coal’s colors aren’t as evocative as the red, white and blue campaign signs displayed at stoplights and front yards across Wyoming. But the black rock is nevertheless playing an important role in the race to succeed Gov. Matt Mead.
Regardless of their politics, the gubernatorial candidates all agree on one thing.
They support coal.
Mead’s two terms as governor included years when Campbell County produced 400 million tons of the black rock. Then there were days like March 31, 2016, when nearly 500 miners were laid off and coal was at its weakest.
Though the industry has steadied since the downturn, the lost jobs haven’t returned. Coal faces challenges that will land on the next governor’s plate, from potential carbon dioxide regulations to continuing market pressures.
Mead left a distinct legacy regarding coal, suing the federal government over regulations like the Clean Power Plan, while developing partnerships with industry to foster alternative uses for carbon. He took an unusual stance on controversial topics like climate change. Despite his doubts about climate science, Mead argued that Wyoming needed to respond to the market and find solutions to carbon dioxide emissions or risk losing a cornerstone industry. In recent years, the governor has focused on countries like Japan, which he believes represents a future market for the Powder River Basin industry.
Now, the gubernatorial hopefuls — from Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos to energy lawyer Mary Throne — are offering full-throated support for Wyoming coal. But most haven’t released specific plans for how they will help the struggling sector face challenges in Mead’s wake.
Follow the science
All the candidates interviewed by the Star-Tribune oppose the Clean Power Plan, an emissions reduction approach from the Environmental Protection Agency that called for a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, relative to 2005 levels.
Researchers at the University of Wyoming predicted as much as 40 percent of Wyoming’s coal production could evaporate under such a plan.
For Democrat Mary Throne, the plan was misguided. The energy lawyer specialized in the Clean Air Act before joining the Wyoming Legislature, she said.
“Well, the Clean Air Act was never designed to deal with an issue like greenhouse gasses. It was an imperfect tool,” she said referring to the congressional framework under the Clean Power Plan. “The Clean Air Act was stretched beyond recognition in creating the Clean Power Plan.”
But Throne, in contrast to other candidates, believes in climate science. Wyoming’s coal industry will not benefit from opposition to scientific findings, she said.
Throne has said on the campaign trail that she is the best candidate on energy issues, given her legal history. Her approach to the coal dilemma is to follow in Mead’s footsteps regarding carbon capture.
“We have to advocate for sustainable uses for coal,” she said, noting the potential of carbon capture tax credits recently extended by Congress, in part due to the work of U.S. Sen. John Barrasso. “The next governor really needs to advocate to get one of those projects here in Wyoming.”
Wyoming has a framework to promote carbon capture, from the Integrated Test Center –- a research facility that can host carbon research in Gillette — to years of work at the University of Wyoming, she said.
Despite these advances, the debate that lingered in Wyoming over climate science held the state back at a crucial period, she said.
“I feel like we’ve lost a lot of time,” Throne said. “Thinking that the whole discussion about a change in climate and greenhouse gasses was a political problem that would be solved with a new president.”
A bully pulpit
Harriet Hageman, a natural resources lawyer, was on a plane recently when a flyer promoting Wyoming’s famous mountains and yearly rodeo caught her eye.
Why don’t we do this for coal, she asked?
The Republican from a ranching family in Ft. Laramie said Wyoming needed to get the word out about coal, trumpeting its importance in the electricity mix and its value to places like Wyoming.
She is firmly pro-coal and anti-federal regulation.
Hegeman does not believe in climate science, nor that the Environmental Protection Agency is obligated to regulate carbon dioxide as a harmful emission.
The endangerment finding the agency announced in 2009, stating that current and predicted levels of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane are harmful to human health, has been contested in court. Still, it has so far been upheld.
Much of the debate over getting rid of the Clean Power Plan is troubled by this endangerment finding. It will have to be reckoned with in order to get rid of the Clean Power Plan, experts say.
“I don’t agree,” Hageman said. “You can just put that in your paper.”
Hageman said what has been lacking in the carbon dioxide debate of the last few decades is research into what carbon dioxide does and whether it is harmful to the environment.
“You have to recognize that it is a political issue and not an environmental issue,” she said, referring to carbon dioxide as “plant food.”
As to a position held by Mead, that Wyoming should seek a replacement for the Clean Power Plan that works for Wyoming, Hageman said the plan was unconstitutional and needed to be repealed.
“I think that we need to be at the table, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we advocate for additional regulations,” she said.
If the Environmental Protection Agency proposes something new, Wyoming needs to be firm in its support of the industry, she said.
Thinking outside the box
Sam Galeotos said he supported a recent amicus brief that Wyoming filed regarding a blocked Washington coal export terminal. Wyoming has nursed for years a deep hope that an export terminal will help coal’s future. The terminal, meanwhile, has been held back by environmental controversy and, more recently, a legal battle.
Wyoming added its two cents, arguing in a court briefing last month that the blocked terminal is a detriment to Wyoming’s economy.
Galeotos said that’s the stance Wyoming must take, defending its coal industry to threats.
He is bullish on coal, using a market term that describes being positive, as when the price of crude rises.
Mead laid the groundwork based on innovation and private-public partnerships with the Integrated Test Center, Galeotos said. That is the path Wyoming should continue down, he said.
“What’s interesting is that [Mead] was thinking about the ITC a few years back, knowing that there had to be another path to dealing with the problem,” Galeotos said.
It’s an approach that Galeotos approves of.
As to the potential for a reboot of the Clean Power Plan, Galeotos said Wyoming can and should partner with the Trump administration, a vocal supporter of coal.
“We do have this unique opportunity right now,” he said of D.C.’s stance on coal. “We do need to be very vocal and use every avenue we have to advocate what we believe is the rational approach forward.”
Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon’s plan for coal is one of the most detailed of the candidates at this point.
The market, in which cheap natural gas undercut coal’s advantages in the electricity sector, was one part of coal’s decline in recent years. The other problem, he argues, is that federal regulations benefited one political view about coal —- and it wasn’t Wyoming’s perspective.
It’s possible that coal will continue to decline, Gordon said, and the energy portfolio will change.
But coal can and will still be a part of the mix, he said. What Wyoming can do is chase ways to make that certain, like infrastructure.
Rail lines could take Wyoming coal to Alberta, Canada or Alaska, he said. The public-private partnership of the ITC could be replicated in other ways, if Wyoming’s treasurer’s office is allowed to partner with business on energy infrastructure.
In a list of talking points Gordon shared with the Star-Tribune, the treasurer argues for building on Wyoming coal’s potential advantages.
Take Washington, the state’s nemesis over the export terminal.
The West Coast state could be a partner, Gordon said, bringing together the aviation sector of Washington with potential carbon materials in Wyoming.
“We’re seeing promising research come out every day that shows the potential for turning carbon into marketable products we can make money off of – like petrochemicals, asphalt and plastics,” he said in a talking points memo.
The groundwork is laid, he said.
“Wyoming has said we want to be a part of the solution.”