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Shannon Broderick, Laramie Boomerang 

A bus bearing the "World Needs More Cowboys" marketing campaign drives up to the bus stop in front of the Wyoming Union Thursday morning.The “World Needs More Cowboys” marketing campaign, which caused a stir over the summer, is expanding in October with more internet advertising and 30-second spots during NFL games. 


State-and-regional
Sen. Mike Enzi targeted by Koch Brothers in effort to limit Trump’s tariff authority

Sen. Mike Enzi has been targeted by a prominent conservative advocacy group seeking his support on legislation to limit President Donald Trump’s tariff authority.

Enzi is one of 35 members of Congress – including 16 Democrats – named as targets in a new digital advertising campaign funded by Americans For Prosperity. That group is urging support for Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher’s Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act, a bill that would – according to the text – “impose limitations on the authority of the President to adjust imports that are determined to threaten to impair national security.”

The advertising campaign was launched last week.

“Trade barriers like tariffs stifle innovation and harm workers, consumers and taxpayers,” AFP President Tim Phillips said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill presents a great opportunity for Senator Enzi to ensure we don’t slam the brakes on economic growth and restore the legislative branch’s constitutional authority over tariffs. We urge Senator Enzi to support this crucial bill and protect his constituents from these harmful tax hikes.”

Americans For Prosperity is the advocacy arm of the expansive influence mercantile backed by the Koch Brothers – a pair of industrialists who are among the principle architects of conservative policy over the past decade.

The president’s appetite for tariffs has already had a detrimental effect on the U.S. economy, according to new numbers released Wednesday by the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Since Trump declared a “trade war” with China in 2017 – leading to the imposition of tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods – the U.S. trade deficit with China increased $43.6 billion. Meanwhile, overall U.S. imports from the Asian nation have increased.

While the biggest changes were seen in the Chinese markets, tariffs – while not the sole factor behind the nation’s trade deficit – have contributed to growing trade deficits with each of the United States’ largest trade partners, including the European Union, Mexico and Taiwan.

The sharpest increases, according to a Wednesday news release from the bureau, were seen in Mexico – where steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the president have caused substantial tension in negotiations of the new North American Free Trade Agreement – and India, which has threatened the United States with retaliatory tariffs if economic sanctions are not lifted.

According to 2018 estimates from the United States Chamber of Commerce, nearly $38 million in Wyoming exports could potentially be threatened by these tariffs, mostly from China.

Why Enzi?

According to the United States Constitution, the legislative branch – not the executive – is responsible for levying tariffs.

However, the president of the United States is granted significant leeway when national security is at stake, the definition of which is loosely defined and has been increasingly exploited by the Trump administration in efforts to circumvent traditional functions of Congress on issues like border security.

Enzi sits on each of the Senate’s committees involving the nation’s finances, including holding the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on the Budget, and the Committee on Finance, which oversees national tariff interests. In 2017, his committee was assigned legislation calling for a review of the executive branch’s authority to impose tariffs, one of numerous attempts to curb the president’s trade authority. (The bill did not get heard in committee.)

“Senator Enzi has a great opportunity to promote free trade and oppose harmful trade barriers in his position as a very senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, tariffs and this bill,” Kevin Brinegar, a regional communications manager for Americans for Prosperity, wrote in an email. “We want to stress to members of both parties who are in a position to make a difference that they should not stand by as Americans across the country continue to be negatively impacted by tariffs proposed by any administration. This investment is a continuation of our efforts on advancing a free trade and positive agenda of reducing trade barriers and opening markets.”

Contacted for comment, a spokeswoman for Enzi declined to speculate on why Enzi was targeted for the advertisements, stating that Enzi – in the past – had spoken directly with President Trump about how Wyoming industry is tied to international trade. The senator has also opposed tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on items like Canadian newsprint, and has appealed for the end of reciprocal tariffs on U.S. exports like soda ash, of which the Green River Basin in Wyoming is a significant source.

He has also written to Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer expressing similar concerns, according to the spokeswoman, Rachel Vliem.

“Senator Enzi has said he is generally concerned with implementing tariffs and believes the administration must consider the potential negative impact it may have on our domestic industries,” wrote Vliem in a statement. “Senator Enzi also understands there are times when tariffs might be warranted, such as for legitimate national security concerns. Issues dealing with trade are always an ongoing debate in Congress, and Senator Enzi will be reviewing each proposal to do what he thinks is best for Wyoming.”


Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Kassidy Thomas, a sophomore at Kelly Walsh, takes the stage Wednesday night with the rest of the Trojan cheer team for their first performance at the Wyoming State Spirit competition.


Health
Ten Wyoming hospitals penalized by Medicare, report says

The federal government has penalized nine Wyoming hospitals for high readmission rates, and another one for high levels of hospital-acquired medical conditions, a report from Kaiser Health News shows.

The hospitals listed in the report were each docked a certain percentage of the funding they receive from Medicare. According to Kaiser Health News, the Affordable Care Act allows Medicare to cut payments from the program as penalties.

Overall, according to Kaiser — one of the leading health outlets in the nation — a total of 800 hospitals were penalized across the country. Ten were in Wyoming.

The penalties are percent of payments from Medicare to the facilities. A cap of 3 percent is applied to readmission rate penalties, and hospitals are docked 1 percent for hospital-acquired conditions.

The hospitals penalized in Wyoming for excessive readmission rates are:

  • St. Johns Medical Center in Jackson, penalized 2.82 percent;
  • Mountain View Regional in Casper, penalized 1.54 percent;
  • Cheyenne Regional, penalized 1.26 percent;
  • Wyoming Medical Center, 1.12 percent;
  • Campbell County Memorial Hospital, 0.63 percent;
  • Evanston Regional, 0.36 percent;
  • SageWest Health Care in Riverton, 0.32 percent;
  • Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County; 0.07 percent;
  • Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, 0.03 percent.

St. Johns’ 2.82 percent penalty is the highest of any Wyoming hospital since the penalties began in 2015.

Meanwhile, Rock Springs’ Aspen Mountain Medical Center was the only hospital here penalized for hospital-acquired conditions in 2019.

Four Wyoming hospitals were penalized for high readmission rates for the fifth straight year, Kaiser’s analysis found. They are Cheyenne Regional, Wyoming Medical Center, Campbell County Memorial and Evanston Regional. Wyoming Medical is the largest hospital in the state, while Cheyenne Regional is the second-largest.

Wyoming Medical acquired Casper’s Mountain View in April 2018. Mountain View faced the second-highest readmission penalty in the state, at 1.54 percent.

WMC has never been penalized by the government for hospital-acquired conditions, according to Kaiser’s analysis, while Mountain View was docked for it in 2015 and 2016.

Hospitals have broadly been critical of Medicare’s penalty system. The American Hospital Association called it “a game of chance for many hospitals, rather than a fair and meaningful determination of their performance” in an article from last year. According to the association, nearly 60 percent of the hospitals penalized for hospital-acquired conditions were not statistically different from those hospitals who were under the threshold for a penalty.

But Kaiser quoted an official from Leapfrog — a hospital quality watchdog — who said that the ratings were important to improve quality.

Leapfrog gives hospitals a safety grade each year. It gave WMC a C in fall 2018, for instance, though the hospital wasn’t penalized by Medicare for hospital-acquired conditions. Nor was Jackson’s St. Johns, which received an A grade.

Mirroring arguments in favor of the Medicare penalties, supporters of Leapfrog say it’s an important piece in a broader effort to improve hospital quality. Leapfrog is also aimed at allowing health care consumers to shop and compare facilities.

Emailed requests for comment were not returned Wednesday from the Wyoming Hospital Association and from the Wyoming Business Coalition on Health, advocates for Leapfrog and broader efforts to improve hospital quality and price transparency.


Outdoors
breaking
US plans to lift protections for gray wolves

BILLINGS, Mont. — U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states, re-igniting the legal battle over a predator that’s run into conflicts with farmers and ranchers after rebounding in some regions, an official told The Associated Press.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the proposal during a Wednesday speech at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Denver, a weeklong conservation forum for researchers, government officials and others, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Gavin Shire said in an interview with the AP.

The decision was based on gray wolves successfully recovering from widespread extermination last century, Shire said. Further details were expected during a formal announcement planned in coming days.

Wildlife advocates reacted with outrage and promised to challenge in court any attempt to lift protections. Agriculture groups and lawmakers from Western states are likely to support the administration’s proposal.

Long despised by farmers and ranchers, wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned out of existence in most of the U.S. by the mid-20th century.

They received endangered species protections in 1975, when there were about 1,000 left, only in northern Minnesota. Now more than 5,000 of the animals live in the contiguous U.S.

Most are in the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies regions. Protections for the Northern Rockies population were lifted in 2011 and hundreds of wolves are killed annually by hunters in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

State officials and government biologists have said wolves continue to thrive despite pressure from hunting. The animals are prolific breeders and can adapt to a variety of habitats.

But wildlife advocates have fought to keep federal protections kept in place until wolves repopulate more of their historic range that stretched across most of North America.

Since being reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, the Northern Rockies population has expanded to parts of Oregon, Washington and California.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has argued for years that gray wolves have recovered in the lower 48 states, despite experts who contend they occupy about 15 percent of the territory they once roamed. Agency officials insist that recovery of wolves everywhere is not required for the species no longer to be in danger of extinction.

John Vucetich, a wildlife biologist at Michigan Technological University, said most wolf experts probably would agree the species is not at imminent risk, but he said he considers dropping federal protections as a premature move.

He said he could not pinpoint a threshold at which he would consider the wolves to be recovered but that “it’s nowhere near as small as 15 percent” of the far-flung regions where they once lived.

Many people “still find it difficult to live with wolves,” primarily because they kill livestock as well as deer and elk that people like to hunt, Vucetich said. If wolves are returned to state management, he said, “I do worry that some of the states could be overly aggressive and that wolves could fare worse than their current condition.”

The government first proposed revoking the wolf’s protected status across the lower 48 states in 2013, but backed off after federal courts struck down its plan for “delisting” the species in the western Great Lakes region states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials disclosed to the AP last year that another scientific review of the animal’s status had been launched.

Shire declined to disclose the agency’s rationale for determining the species had recovered, but said members of the public would have a chance to comment before a final decision in coming months.

“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink,” Shire later added in an emailed statement.

Jamie Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service now with the Defenders of Wildlife group, said endangered species protections were need to prevent “an all-out war on wolves” in states that would allow hunting.

“We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” she said. “We’re going to fight this any way possible.”

Lawmakers in Congress, frustrated with court rulings maintaining protections for wolves, have backed legislation to forcibly strip protections in the Great Lakes region and beyond. A similar effort by lawmakers succeeded in 2011 for Northern Rockies wolves.


Susan Walsh, AP 

Senate Budget Committee member Sen. Michael Enzi appears at a hearing on Capitol Hill Feb. 3, 2015, in Washington, D.C. A new advertising campaign is urging Enzi to limit President Donald Trump's authority to impose tariffs. 


Energy
With Wyoming’s only coal exporter facing potential bankruptcy, what happens to the export dream?

Even as the bottom was falling out, Cloud Peak kept a brave face in calls with investors. All through 2018, executives said they hoped for a cold winter and praised the one bright spot in their company’s outlook: its export success.

Similarly, Cloud Peak has represented a bright spot for Wyoming, a solution to declining domestic demand. It’s the only company operating in Wyoming – whose financial filings are public – that is sending Powder River Basin coal to Asia.

And now that company is in trouble.

The Gillette-based company is not gritting its teeth and smiling anymore — it’s too busy facing up to a likely delisting from the New York Stock Exchange. Cloud Peak is cutting costs like retiree health benefits and communications staff to staunch the cash bleed reported in financial statements. It recently hired outside consultants to weigh its options — including a sale, a potential restructuring and an expected bankruptcy.

For a company known as a sharp operator in the PRB, the outlook has become increasingly bleak. But could the troubles faced by the company that operates Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines in Campbell County forecast a disappointment for Wyoming in regard to exports? Most say no.

“The question of whether or not Cloud Peak goes bankrupt could have some short-term effects on exports, but there’s a bigger question,” said Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance for the Sightline Institute, a think tank in Seattle that advocates a transition to green energy. “The question is: Do exports make economic sense?”

For now, most say, they don’t.

***

Cloud Peak is the one major player that didn’t file for Chapter 11 protection in the coal downturn of 2015 and 2016. At the time, that meant Cloud Peak miners didn’t face layoffs and court. In the long term, it meant Cloud Peak didn’t get to shave off millions of dollars in debt like its competitors.

In a research update lowering Cloud Peak’s credit rating, credit analyst Vania Dimova noted that the company’s decision to hire restructuring consultants made it likely the firm would be facing that process in the next year. The Altman Z-score, a rubric used to anticipate near-term bankruptcy, also has Cloud Peak staring down that barrel.

Cloud Peak’s troubles don’t say much about the long-term goals of Wyoming getting its coal to Asia, said Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.

Cloud Peak’s financial troubles are related to the downturn in demand in the domestic market, rather than what’s happening in their small piece of the Asian market. The company only sends about 5 percent of its production overseas, he said.

Despite the small dent Powder River Basin coal makes in that market, Begger is convinced that demand persists from buyers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

“They are looking to the U.S. for more than just economic reasons. A lot of it has to do with diversity of supply,” he said of countries that lack domestic energy supply to meet their needs and want to guarantee the stability of their supply in the form of imports.

For Begger, the reason Wyoming coal isn’t going to Asia is simple.

“There is just no West Coast shipping terminals,” he said. “If that Millennium Bulk Terminal was open tomorrow, all 48 million tons (of capacity) could be sold, contracted,” he said.

***

Coal exports from the U.S. are now shipped from export terminals in Canada. It’s just not worth the cost to send coal that far by rail and then spend money again to send it across the sea. Wyoming coal isn’t hot enough for that, and when sending coal long distance, the heat quality has to be high enough that the expense of transport doesn’t kill the profit.

“That’s the hardest place to make exports work from,” said Chiza Vitta, an analyst with S&P Global Ratings, of the Powder River Basin.

The reason is the coal in Wyoming is not hot enough. That lower heat means a lower value to be spread over every mile of transportation. The cheap coal still works within the country. It’s cheap to get out of the ground. To also send it overseas is a challenge few have vaulted.

It all comes down to having a port closer to Wyoming mines — a cultural hurdle as well as an economic one. The West Coast sits between Wyoming and the market it wants to serve, and the West Coast doesn’t want coal, said Beggar of the infrastructure authority.

Wyoming lawmakers have been quick to blast Washington state for blocking the Millennium Bulk Terminals proposed in Longview. The matter is currently locked in a court battle after the state denied the development a key permit. Wyoming filed a brief to weigh in on the resulting lawsuit, but lawmaker frustration persisted, resulting in a bill passed last month that would give the Wyoming Legislature, in consultation with the governor, authority to hire outside lawyers to sue Washington.

Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, opposed the bill but not its goal. Ellis, a lawyer, felt like Wyoming was already involved in the suit through the attorney general’s office and did not understand the need for the legislation, which is awaiting Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature.

She said the trouble with Wyoming launching more litigation in this matter is it could undermine the ultimate goal by delaying and complicating the current ongoing litigation.

“I think the intentions of the bill are good. I just worry that they might have the opposite consequences of what supporters of that coal port are trying to achieve,” she said.

The result of the existing lawsuit carries enormous consequences for the future of Wyoming’s export dream. A rule in favor of the terminal could signal the opening of that market. A rule against will be noticed by potential investors.

In any instance, the case will set a legal precedent, said Beggar. For now everyone is in a holding pattern, waiting to see what happens with Millennium, he said.

***

Cloud Peak will likely hold onto its niche market despite its economic troubles, said Dimova, the analyst at S&P.

Cloud Peak has contracts with the ports and rail to move coal into that market. It costs money to break those.

As long as the firm is at least breaking even, it will continue to send about 5.5 million tons a year across the seas until those contracts end in about two years, Dimova said.

Still, the small success of Cloud Peak in the export market is not a promise of more to come to most watchers of the coal industry. Regardless of what happens to Cloud Peak, another company will likely pick up that share of the market if it’s profitable, said Williams-Derry of Sightline.

Rob Godby, director of the Center of Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming, said the question of exports remains one of distance and how many dollars that represents.

“The fact that Cloud Peak is exporting out of Spring Creek in Montana and not out of the Wyoming mines tells you a little bit about the sensitivity to transport costs,” Godby said.

Yet, there is capacity available up in Canada, at the export terminals that Cloud Peak uses to get its coal to Asian markets, Godby said.

If producers in Wyoming were willing or wanting to export coal now, they could, he said.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Cloud Peak’s previous involvement in West Coast terminals. The coal company was once a minority owner of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.