It didn't take long after the Obama administration unveiled new rules this week regulating carbon emissions from power plants for people to start naming winners and losers. Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal-producing state, and a huge coal consumer, was immediately billed as a loser.
"We feel it’s bad for Wyoming, and it’s certainly not good for our coal industry," says Travis Deti, assistant director of the Wyoming Mining Association. The rule anticipates states will cut back on coal-fired power in order to reduce their emissions. That means coal would drop from producing 40 percent of the nation’s electricity today to 30 percent in 2030.
"If we're not mining that coal, that revenue is not coming into our treasury, those jobs are not sustained here at home, so it's going to impact us," Deti says.
Coal mining contributes over a billion dollars a year to Wyoming’s coffers and employs about 7,000 people in the state. The Obama administration says the rules will lower electricity rates and create new jobs in the clean energy sector, but Deti doesn't buy it. In his opinion, there's no upside to the rule.
Rob Godby, an economics professor at the University of Wyoming, disagrees. "You know, if there's going to be one coal man left standing, it’s probably going to be Wyoming," Godby says. "Some argue that Wyoming coal-fired power plants around the country will actually have to run harder as other plants are shut down. In which case, you could get a short-term boost."
Long-term, Godby says there are opportunities for Wyoming to protect its coal interests by developing carbon capture technology for coal-fired power plants. He says Wyoming is one of the best places to test that kind of technology, since coal is so cheap and abundant in the state.
Beyond coal though, Godby thinks the rule could actually be really good for Wyoming's overall energy industry. As utilities cut back on coal, many will switch to cleaner-burning natural gas.
"And that's good for the state because it creates new demand for our gas," he says.
Not only that, he says the state is well-placed to take advantage of renewable resources, like wind and solar, and uranium, which could see an uptick if utilities invest in more nuclear power.
"I'm trying not to sound like a cheerleader right now, but it really is an exciting time, and a lot people who work in energy know there are a lot of potential improvements out there that can occur on the grid, in generation, in electricity use," he says.
For all of Godby’s optimism, the chances that the state will willingly embrace the regulations are next to none. Wyoming’s Congressional delegation has already vowed to fight them. Governor Matt Mead was more cautious in his response, but flatly rejected the idea that coal would become a less important part of the nation's energy mix.
"We put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to figure out solutions for coal," Mead says.
Deb Theriault owns a renewable energy company in Casper. She says she appreciates everything coal brings to the state and the governor's advocacy for it, but she hopes it doesn't come at the expense of other energy resources.
"It would be nice to see him give credence and credibility and think about how renewables could fit into that mix, instead of just sort of putting the blinders on and saying 'we're going to go with the way we've always done it.'"
If the rule goes into effect, doing it the way it’s always been done won't be an option, but Wyoming will get to choose whether it's seen as an opportunity or a burden. The rule now goes to a 120 day comment period. It's expected to be finalized next year.