Kerry Drake

Kerry Drake

Wyoming columnist

Every time I think Wyoming can’t deceive itself further, contorting all reason to justify keeping the ventilator running on its dying coal industry, politicians prove me wrong.

It’s time for Gov. Mark Gordon and state lawmakers to face reality and let nature — in this case the natural laws of free-market economics — take its course. They have no business tethering the fate of Wyoming taxpayers, ratepayers and the state’s largest utility to that of the dearly beloved but clearly doomed King Coal.

PacifiCorp plans to retire several of its aging coal-fired power plants ahead of schedule and invest about $4 billion in new wind energy, transmission and battery storage projects in Wyoming. The company estimates the switch could save up to $599 million across its six-state operating region.

Gordon asked the U.S. Department of Energy to study the potential environmental and economic impacts of retrofitting Wyoming’s coal-fired power plants to use carbon capture utilization and storage.

The study immediately drew criticism from PacifiCorp and environmental groups. It concludes CCUS would significantly reduce CO2 emissions, decrease ratepayers’ bills, save jobs and provide more state and local tax revenues.

DOE’s report would have more credibility if its findings didn’t fly in the face of what happened at Petra Nova in Texas, the nation’s only commercially operational CCUS project before it was mothballed this year.

The $1 billion project near Houston captured less than half of carbon dioxide emissions during the first quarter of 2020, not the consistent 90% figure claimed by owner NRG Energy.

The project likely could not have survived its three years in operation without a $190 million DOE investment and $250 million in loans from a Japanese bank.

“Proponents of these projects are selling an unproven dream that in all likelihood will become a nightmare for unsuspecting investors,” states an Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report on Petra Nova.

PacifiCorp’s analysis said the report does not consider a utility’s costs for income taxes, tax credits, property taxes or net power costs. The utility added the study doesn’t adequately factor in fuel and system costs.

The carbon captured from coal-power production can be piped in to enhance oil recovery projects or sequestered underground. What scuttled Petra Nova was the oil market crash this year, with prices falling below $45 per barrel. The DOE study for Wyoming, PacifiCorp noted, does not even consider a market price for oil below $60 per barrel.

The questionable DOE report is one of several coal-boosting initiatives Gordon announced. All are tied to President Trump’s unfulfilled promise to save the coal industry, and all will likely collapse if a new administration takes over.

The EPA is rolling back an Obama-era rule that limited the volume of toxins coal plants can dump into waterways. The agency is doing it to save money for coal-plant operators — an estimated $140 million annually, including about $8 million in Wyoming.

“This disastrous rule will allow coal power plants to continue dumping toxic wastewater — filled with dangerous pollutants like lead, mercury and arsenic — into the same waterways that our families drink and play in,” the League of Conservation Voters stated.

Wyoming is plunging ahead on a public-private plan to demonstrate geologic sequestration of coal-derived carbon dioxide near Basin Electric’s Dry Fork Station.

The Legislature granted Gordon’s request for a $1 million fund to market coal, and he’s spent half of it renewing a two-year contract with the Energy Policy Network.

EPN will lobby other states to delay plant closures and keep using Wyoming coal even though it’s proven to not be cost-effective. Wyoming might as well have taken that $500,000 and tossed it into a 60-mph gust of wind.

It’s par for the course in a state whose lawmakers passed a bill requiring public utilities seeking to retire a coal unit to first make a “good faith effort” to sell it to a third-party buyer. Who is going to buy a plant whose owner has determined it’s not economical to run on coal?

The quixotic quest of Gordon and the Legislature to keep coal mining alive seems to have no end.

The governor’s office directed the Wyoming Public Service Commission to investigate PacifiCorp’s findings in its exhaustive Integrated Resource Plan that converting coal-fired plants to renewable energy is the best way to provide consumers reliable electricity at the lowest cost.

Last year renewables surpassed coal’s share of U.S. power generation for the first time since the 19th century. We have plenty of wind and sunshine. Yet our politicians refuse to embrace this growth industry Renewables likely won’t ever generate the tax revenue coal has provided, but will create good-paying jobs that can help revive communities hit hard by coal’s decline. They will also reduce costs to electricity ratepayers.

State government is faced with a $1.5 billion biennial deficit, and already the state has announced cuts to programs that help seniors, the mentally ill and disabled and residents who live in poverty.

How can any candidate look voters in the eye — even on Zoom — and say with a straight face that coal is our future?

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 kerry.drake33@yahoo.com.

(1) comment

TheReplacement

“This disastrous rule will allow coal power plants to continue dumping toxic wastewater — filled with dangerous pollutants like lead, mercury and arsenic — into the same waterways that our families drink and play in." Well Mr. Drake if you weren't tilting at windmills so much and thinking instead of spouting you'd realize that this same disastrous rule applies to the miners who extract the rare minerals out of the earth necessary for the manufacture of the wind mills.

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