President-Elect Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion investment in a “Clean Energy Revolution” could help put Wyoming on the path to a brighter and more sustainable economic future.
That best-case scenario will only be possible, though, if the state’s policymakers are willing to join the rest of the nation in embracing renewable energy — and quickly. Wyoming officials must stop practicing the politics of desperation born of their misguided insistence that fossil fuels will boom again and save the state.
Four years of federal and state energy strategies focused on reviving a dying coal industry have failed. Regulators cast aside fundamental environmental protections, yet achieved only further economic decline and a narrowing of future options for coal states like Wyoming.
The energy policies that Biden campaigned on map a way out of this mess. Their success is far from guaranteed, and potential gains could be hampered by partisan political gamesmanship in Congress and at the state level. But they are unquestionably the best hope we have to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.
The new administration offers more positive action on energy issues than most Wyoming officials probably care to admit. In a state that voted nearly 3-to-1 for President Donald Trump over Biden, it’s easy to predict that Gov. Mark Gordon and the Legislature will fall back on the tired “war on coal” rhetoric and litigation that stymied President Barack Obama’s clean power initiatives.
Biden’s energy plan is divided into two intrinsically-linked parts: robust investment in clean, renewable energy resources like wind and solar, and a related jobs program to reinvigorate an economy that has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.
What’s in it for Wyoming? Plenty. Here are two excerpts from Biden’s plan that would directly address communities coping with the nation’s inexorable shift away from coal:
• “Securing the benefits coal miners and their families have earned … and establishing a Task Force on Coal and Power Plant Communities, as the Obama-Biden administration did for Detroit when the auto industry was in turmoil.”
• “Creating more than a quarter million jobs immediately to clean up local economies from the impacts of resource extraction. … A front-loaded investment to immediately address the backlog of remediation, reclamation and restoration needs left behind by CEOs whose corporations failed to meet their responsibilities to the communities where they operated.”
Both offer precisely what discarded workers and community leaders said they desperately needed when several coal mines shuttered and PacifiCorp announced plans to convert several of its coal-burning power plant units in Wyoming to cheaper natural gas, wind and solar. Biden’s plan could help avert economic disaster in towns like Gillette and Kemmerer.
The biggest carrot Biden’s plan offers the diehard carbon capture, use and storage technology crowd is a pledge to “double down” on federal investments and enhanced tax incentives for CCUS. This includes funding carbon capture sequestration research, development and demonstration projects that Gordon and legislators from coal-dependent districts have tirelessly promoted.
Unfortunately, the president-elect’s CCUS funding commitment is a fundamental flaw in his national energy policy. It placates state officials and the coal industry at a time when Wyoming needs to divorce itself from fossil fuels. The plan declares it wants “to make CCUS a widely available, cost-effective and rapidly scalable solution to reduce carbon emissions to meet mid-century climate goals [of a zero-emissions.”
By 2035, solar, wind and battery storage should be the backbone of the nation’s clean energy system. Biden wants to extend and expand wind and solar tax credits. But the winds of change are blowing in the opposite direction in Wyoming, where the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee advanced a bill to strip tax exemptions for Wyoming wind projects in their first three years of operation.
Biden plans to sign an executive order on his first day in office to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. He will also immediately reverse Trump’s rollback of 100 public-health and environmental rules that the Obama administration had in place. Both are great moves.
I’m much less confident in the willingness of Wyoming officials to make substantive policy changes to diversify the economy and end the state’s nearly total dependence on coal, oil and gas for tax revenues.
Two weeks ago, the state rejected ConnectGen’s bid to lease 4,800 acres of state land in Albany County to construct one-fifth of its 500-megawatt Rail Tie wind project.
Wyoming infamously gets peanuts for leasing state land for grazing, but the board kissed off $480,000 per year from the proposed wind farm lease. The company estimated the project would generate $133.5 million in taxes for Albany County and $45 million for the state during its 35-year lifespan.
The state is constitutionally obligated to manage state land to ensure long-term growth in value and “optimum, sustainable revenue production.” But in making its decision, the board only cited concerns from residents about compromised viewsheds and lower private property values.
No federal energy plan developed by either party can overcome the obstacles in a state whose political leaders are unwilling to embrace necessary change for its economic and environmental survival.
Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at email@example.com.