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The New West: Wyoming’s coal gamble is a losing proposition

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By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Lately, both U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and the state’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte have been grandstanding, trying to make hay out of the shuttering of old coal power plants at Colstrip. Ironic, with both of them claiming to be mavens of the “new economy.”

Let’s have a little refresher on what Montana’s economy might look like today if, say, Sen. Daines and the potential governor, Gianforte, had prevailed in making state finances more dependent on coal. Let us also peer through the window of what crony coal politics might look like, a scenario not altogether different from the era of the copper kings.

To find that window, we need only look south into Wyoming. In 2010, GOP candidate Matt Mead spent $1.22 million of his own money launching a $1.98 million campaign to succeed Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, as Wyoming governor. Mead won the state’s top public service job, which pays $105,000 annually.

When Mead ran for re-election in 2014, he didn’t need to dip into the rest of his multimillion-dollar fortune. Two years ago, the incumbent successfully returned to the governor’s mansion in Cheyenne relying on hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from individuals and Political Action Committees, most connected to the coal, oil and gas industries.

While Mead emerged from the Republican primary field in 2010 as a moderate, he took a hard, unexpected turn to the right, pandering to a radical Tea Party base. Instead of telling citizens what they needed to hear – the need for Wyoming to transition away from its dependence on mining coal – he told the industry what it wanted to hear in order to get himself re-elected.

Today, who’s paying the price?

At nearly every turn, Mead has raised a fist of defiance into the face of reality, be it with the economy, the environment, the federal government or his apparent conviction that the “Wyoming Way” means rejecting science that doesn’t conform to a 19th century worldview. Sound familiar?

Just a few weeks ago, the governor vowed to again “double-down” on Wyoming’s commitment to coal, even as three of the biggest coal companies in the state sit in bankruptcy or teeter on the brink of it; even as some of those companies appear poised to walk away from their liberally-granted “self-bonding” requirements, which were supposed to pay for cleanup of the public lands they’ve soiled.

One of those bankrupt companies, Arch Coal, just walked away from plans to develop the controversial Otter Creek Mine in Montana, whose development was widely opposed by ranchers south of Ashland.

The inability of those companies to fulfill their promises in Wyoming means federal taxpayers will likely be stuck covering a tab that could reach hundreds of millions of dollars or more.

As Tea Party Wyomingites – and Montanans – still curse the Obama administration for completing the Bush-Cheney bailout of Wall Street banks and the auto industry, caused by a Great Recession that began on Bush’s watch, perhaps they might explain how the bonding fiasco does not equate to a taxpayer-subsidized bailout of big coal?

With another energy boom squandered, Wyoming is hemorrhaging people again. What will happen if the bankrupt coal companies also fail to honor retirement and healthcare benefits promised to employees and their families? Last summer, Kerry Drake, a reporter with Wyofile, penned a hard-hitting piece on Gov. Mead’s doubling down strategy. Since then the economic conditions of the coal industry and state have only worsened. And the prospects of both are not likely to improve anytime soon.

What has devastated coal, industry experts say, is not the Obama administration or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but a glut of cheap natural gas and the fact that some power plants have switched from burning coal to gas.

Mead’s Hail Mary rescue plan involves trying to strong-arm Washington and Oregon into approving export terminals, enabling Wyoming-dug coal to be railroaded through Montana to the coast and then barged to Asia. But citizens and elected officials in those states don’t want the facilities built, citing concerns about pollution and climate change, the latter providing the rationale for why legislators, utility companies and customers in Washington state do not want to continue buying coal-fired power from Colstrip.

Which leads us to Mead’s steadfast denial of climate change and the Wyoming legislature’s laughable move in recent years to appropriate funding to study the effectiveness of cloud seeding in order to, theoretically, offset the coming impacts of hotter, drier summers, forest fires, and water shortages threatening the viability of state agriculture.

Remembering the University of Wyoming’s decision to take down an art installation on campus that explored the connection between climate change and environmental impacts – and offended legislators tied to the fossil-fuel energy – it’s never been difficult to identify who and what controls state politics.

The coal industry has generously padded the coffers of politicians running for state and federal office. Along with it, several of Wyoming’s senior political figures, including former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Jackson Hole’s John Turner, former national director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under George H.W. Bush, serve on the boards of Arch Coal (bankrupt) and Peabody (barely treading water).

In a story published in mid-March by Environment and Energy Daily, reporters Benjamin Hulac and Dylan Brown wrote, “Arch Coal Inc. paid its top executives more than $8 million in bonuses the business day before the company filed for bankruptcy in January [2016].”

Freudenthal and Turner have issued no public statements about what economic and ethical obligations their companies should have to Wyoming. Coal as an engine for job creation? Last week, two coal companies in Wyoming laid off another 500 workers.

Wyoming is in its worst crisis in 126 years. Mead needs to stop being an apologist for the coal industry and guide his state into the 21st century. Or maybe he’ll just keep blaming all of Wyoming’s woes on wolves, grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act.

Closer to home, if Wyoming is Sen. Daines’ and gubernatorial candidate Gianforte’s idea of how Montana can achieve a bright and prosperous future powered by coal, then we’re in trouble.

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Mangelsen is featured in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine now on newsstands.

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