Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Denver Post and was shared via AP StoryShare.
A new Wyoming law that sets aside money to sue states whose policies hamper the use of Wyoming coal was passed in part with Colorado in mind, the sponsor said.
The bill recently signed into law allocates $1.2 million to the governor's office for lawsuits against states with laws and regulations that impede Wyoming's ability to export coal or force the early closures of coal-fired plants in the state. Wyoming is the country's No.1 coal producer and the move to more renewable energy because of dropping prices of wind and solar power and concerns about climate change have battered the Cowboy State's coal industry.
Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, a Republican from Wheatland, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that Colorado laws setting targets for renewable energy and greenhouse-gas emission generated by utilities infringe on his state's commerce. One of the issues, he said, are Colorado laws passed in 2019 that established goals for reducing emissions and the impact they could have on a coal-fired power plant partially owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.
Tri-State, a Westminster-based provider of wholesale power to several rural electric associations in Colorado, has a part interest in the Laramie River Station coal plant in Haroldson's legislative district.
"Due to the legislation put in place in 2019 by the state of Colorado, Tri-State was required to seek an 80% carbon-free portfolio," Haroldson said.
As a result, Tri-State's new energy resource plan includes "the off-loading" of the Wyoming power plant in the utility's portfolio, putting the plant's future in jeopardy, the legislator added. He thinks curtailing coal and other fossil fuels will also endanger the public because he doesn't believe renewable energy is reliable enough yet.
During a hearing on the bill, Shawn Taylor, the executive director of the Wyoming Rural Electric Association, said his members had asked Haroldson about a response to Colorado's policies.
Tri-State's plan filed in December with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission proposes limiting the power from the Wyoming power plant to Colorado, company spokesman Lee Boughey said in an email. Tri-State also plans to boost its renewable energy sources to 50% by 2024 and cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 90% by 2030 from Colorado facilities it owns or operates.
Boughey said Tri-State didn't give input to the bill or take a position on it. As a company that operates in four states, "We recognize and respect that each state has its own values on, approaches to, and concerns about energy and environmental policy, and its own jurisdiction over utility facilities and resources in their state."
Haroldson said he supports other states doing what they can to meet their needs. However, he said his legislation allows the governor to sue other states if they interfere with Wyoming's economy in violation of the constitutional provision that gives Congress jurisdiction over interstate commerce.
Asked if he thinks Wyoming should sue Colorado, Haroldson said, "I do, yes.
It wouldn't be the first time Wyoming sued to protect its coal industry. The Casper Star Tribune reports that Wyoming and Montana have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider its lawsuit against the state of Washington for denying a permit for a coal-export terminal.
Michael Pearlman, spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, said the new law doesn't require the governor to pursue any specific action.
"While Colorado did come up in the (committee) hearing, the bill does not direct that Colorado specifically be targeted," Pearlman said.
The law provides Wyoming the opportunity to pursue lawsuits involving its coal exports and any laws or policies that hinder the state's ability to provide electricity produced by Wyoming coal plants, Pearlman said.
Colorado state Sen. Faith Winter is sponsoring a bill that sets specific caps to meet the state's overall targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels: 26% by 2025; 50% by 2030; and 90% by 2050. The bill would require wholesale power providers to file a plan to achieve at least an 80% drop in emissions by 2030.
"Ultimately, my job is to protect the health and environment of my citizens, which is exactly what I'm doing. I find it surprising that Wyoming is taking such a hard stance against a free market, basically," said Winter, a Democrat from Westminster.
Winter said Colorado has been a leader in working to provide a transition for workers displaced by changes in the energy industry, including the retirement of coal plants.
"We were the first state in the country to create an office of just transition. I would love to collaborate with Wyoming on how we have a just transition," Winter said.
Wyoming would be better off investing the $1.2 million in preparing workers for changes rather than lawsuits, Winter added.
Lifelong Wyoming resident Connie Wilbert , the state director of the Sierra Club, said the law, which describes coal as vital to the state's interests, is a desperate effort to "cling to a past that’s really worked well for us up until now but is actually vanishing right in front of us."
In 2020, more than 600 miners in the Powder River Basin, the heart of Wyoming's coal country, were furloughed or laid off, according to the Casper Star Tribune. U.S. coal-fired electricity generated less electricity than both natural gas and nuclear power in 2020, the first year coal wasn't the largest or second-largest source of electricity since 1949, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.