Wyoming Legislature extends lifeline to coal power

As economics challenge coal’s future, Wyoming passes a law to prop it up.


In early December 2018, the multi-state electrical utility PacifiCorp had some bad news for coal country: Coal power plants were losing money. Out of the 22 plants the company operates across the West, 13 were more expensive to operate than alternative energy sources, and the three costliest were all in Wyoming.

PacifiCorp could save more than $200 million by closing two units of its Naughton plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming. That would deal a devastating blow to the local economy, which includes the plants and associated mining operations, by potentially eliminating 600 jobs in the regional community of about 3,500, according to preliminary estimates by University of Wyoming economist Rob Godby.

With the livelihoods of entire communities on the line, the Wyoming Legislature is looking for ways to keep coal country whole as long as it can. Senate File 159 passed by overwhelming margins in both chambers of the state Legislature in late February and currently awaits Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature. The law puts up barriers for companies looking to decommission coal power plants in the state and raises charges of free-market meddling and questions about who will pay for the costs of operating the plants.

A new bill could delay the closing of coal plants in Wyoming, like Jim Bridger Power Plant in Sweetwater County.

Under the law, utilities seeking to decommission plants in Wyoming would be forced to search for buyers before they’re allowed to shut the plants down. If other companies step up to purchase the plants, then utilities are compelled to buy back power from the plants they just offloaded.

In an op-ed in the Casper Star-Tribune, Jason Shogren argued that the law . Shogren, the chair of natural resource conservation and management at the University of Wyoming’s economics department, argues that if Wyoming mandates power purchases from coal plants and new operators can’t find a way to cut costs, Wyoming ratepayers will be left paying tens of millions more to keep the plants running.

Another concern is that PacifiCorp could offload its plants — and its obligation to clean up and decommission them — to smaller, less financially robust buyers, said Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. If the new owner then folds or goes bankrupt, decommissioning costs could be passed on to the state.

“I think this bill is well-intentioned, but it’s probably short-sighted,” said Godby. He said it may be more of a political message than anything, and questioned whether any buyers would step up to buy the uneconomical coal plants. Rather than compelling sales, the barriers to closing Wyoming coal plants may just nudge PacifiCorp to look at closing plants in other states first, Godby said.

The bill might temporarily delay the retirement of coal plants in Wyoming, but it’s unlikely to be a long-term cure for an ailing industry. Economic pressures from cheaper alternative energy sources, community-driven movements to ditch fossil fuel giants and develop local renewable energy sources, and increasing momentum for federal programs to address climate change are all putting the squeeze on coal. Even the support of President Donald Trump, who waxes poetic about his love for coal, hasn’t been able to across the country.

Instead of looking for ways to save the coal industry, Godby said legislators should be asking: “When the inevitable closures come, did you do anything to create new opportunities for these communities?”

Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at NewTowncarShare News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected]  or submit a letter to the editor.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • in Southwest Colorado. $60K plus costs.
  • with six+ years of experience, broad knowledge of home and facilities maintenance. 207-805-4157, https://spark.adobe.com/page/8R7Ag/
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Government Affairs Manager that is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to support...
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • The Central Colorado Conservancy, a nationally accredited and state certified land trust, is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to guide the Conservancy into...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time, Lake Tahoe West Senior Project Lead. Position is responsible for working with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to...
  • Forever Our Rivers Foundation seeks a driven and creative individual to lead this national movement for river health. Deadline 6/14/19.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • 7/12-7/14/19 in Taos, NM. With over 21 workshops and keynote speaker, poet Arthur Sze.
  • Badlands Conservation Alliance is seeking an Executive Director. For job description visit https://www.badlandsconservationalliance.org/hiring.
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...