Efforts to protect coal industry taking place in Wyoming and West Virginia

May 11, 2021

While many states are looking for ways to wean off fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy there are efforts taking place in Wyoming and West Virginia to protect the coal industry by introducing measures that would secure its place during the energy transition.

In Wyoming, the nation’s leading coal producer, Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill into law that creates a $1.2 million fund that aims to prop up the coal industry by suing other states that block exports of Wyoming coal and cause Wyoming coal-fired power plants to shut down.

“Wyoming is sending a message that it is prepared to bring litigation to protect her interests,” Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman said of the fund signed into law April 6.

The law puts West Coast states and Colorado on notice — all seek to get a large share of their electricity from renewables but still get juice from aging Wyoming coal-fired power plants.

The state has also received more than half of the $99 million in grants from the the United States Department of Energy to study technology that removes carbon from industrial exhaust and uses it for other purposes, like manufacturing. More than half that money went to Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center, a facility based out of the Dry Fork Power Station in Gillette.

The same day, the DOE also announced a $3 million grant to support Wyoming-based research “focused on expanding and transforming the use of coal and coal-based resources to produce coal-based products, using carbon ore, rare earth elements and critical minerals,” delivering on a December letter of support co-signed by Wyoming Congress members Sen. John Barrasso and Rep. Liz Cheney.

WyoFile reported that the funding did not arrive in Wyoming unprompted. For roughly half a decade, state leaders and the private sector have lobbied for federal buy-in to the idea that with the right investment, the technology called carbon capture utilization and storage — or CCUS — could play a role in combating climate change and become a viable facet of the nation’s energy portfolio.

CCUS has also been touted by leaders like Gov. Mark Gordon and his predecessor, Matt Mead, as a means to revitalize the state’s declining coal industry, which is facing cheaper, cleaner competition from renewables and other fossil fuels. CCUS, they’ve claimed, offers a bridge between coal country and a world in transition.

“Federal and state regulatory policies and consumer choice is contributing greatly to the decreased market for thermal coal,” Gordon told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — co-chaired by Sen. Barrasso — in testimony on the technology last month. “Many of these policies have painted a bullseye on the chest of coal. That target is misplaced.”

Wyoming coal production, which accounts for about 40 percent of the nation’s total, has been in decline as utilities switch to gas, which is cheaper to burn to generate electricity. Solar and wind power also are on the rise as coal’s share of the U.S. power market shrinks from about half in the early 2000s to less than 20 percent now.

In West Virginia, Rep. David McKinley wants to save coal by passing a climate bill.

That's the theory behind the “Clean Energy Future Through Innovation Act,” a clean electricity standard plan the West Virginia Republican introduced with Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) late last year.

“My mission here is to keep coal and natural gas in the mix and try to clean it as much as we can,” McKinley said in an interview in a congressional office decorated with a large portrait of a coal miner.

“In our legislation, we get to 80 percent reduction of CO2,” McKinley said. “Is it 100 percent? No, but Ronald Reagan said if you get 80 percent of what you want, you got to take it.”

E&E News reported the bill is among the most significant bipartisan efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, and it puts McKinley in an unusual position within a Republican Party simultaneously dealing with the far-right fringe and struggling to develop a coherent set of policies on climate change.

If he's able to keep one of West Virginia's two remaining seats after redistricting this year, McKinley could be a key energy and environmental deal-maker for Republicans in the tumultuous political years to come.



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