Wyoming Policymakers Question Feasibility Of Clean Power Plan

Dec 4, 2014

The smokestacks of the Comanche Power Plant in Pueblo, Colorado.
Credit Stephanie Joyce

If there were ever uncertainty about how Wyoming policymakers would feel about the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, now we can say for sure:  they hate it. The comment period for the so-called Clean Power Plan ended Monday. Wyoming Public Radio’s Caroline Ballard spoke with energy reporter Stephanie Joyce about what the state had to say and where things go from here.

CAROLINE BALLARD: Stephanie, to start, refresh our memories about what exactly the Clean Power Plan is. 

STEPHANIE JOYCE: Sure. So, in June, the Obama administration released a plan to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030. That’s the overall national goal -- each state has its own emissions target, based on what the federal government determined was feasible. So, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that Wyoming would have to cut emissions by 19 percent. The state actually says that number is wrong -- that it’s much higher, closer to 26 percent. Regardless, what’s unusual about this plan is that it leaves how the state meets the emissions reduction goal pretty open-ended. The “feasibility” was calculated on assumptions like increased power plant efficiency, more use of renewables and end-user energy efficiency. But states get decide exactly how they go about achieving the reduction goal.

BALLARD: So, Wyoming policymakers have some thoughts about how feasible these emission cuts actually are. What are their concerns?

JOYCE: Well, I would say that they had a few. Two different state agencies that commented on the Clean Power Plan, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Public Service Commission had sort of different approaches. The Department of Environmental Quality spent some time on feasibility, but mostly focused on the federal government’s authority to even regulate carbon emissions under the law that it’s using. And I won’t get into all of their arguments, but basically they say the EPA is breaking the law in half a dozen ways and that it really should withdraw the rule.

The Public Service Commission focused more specifically on feasibility and basically said the targets are unrealistic and if the state is actually going to meet them, then it’s going to have to shut down a bunch of its coal-fired power plants. Here’s Commission chairman Al Minier:

AL MINIER: The conclusion that I’ve reached is that it would be very bad for the state of Wyoming and the first thing we need to do is get the EPA’s target for us changed.

JOYCE: So, one of the things both state agencies comment on is that they don’t believe it’s possible for Wyoming to increase its use of renewable power by as much as the federal government says it is. And that’s important because renewables are the biggest part of what the EPA's reduction plan calls. The EPA says Wyoming can feasibly increase its share of renewables by 6 percent a year… the state says that number should be closer to 1 percent.

BALLARD: And what are their reasons for saying they can't increase Wyoming's share of renewables?

JOYCE: It’s a combination of things. Arguably the biggest is that from the state’s reading of the EPA plan, renewable power sent to other states doesn’t count toward Wyoming’s reduction target. So, for example, if a thousand wind turbines get built in Wyoming, but all that power is headed to California, it doesn’t factor into Wyoming’s emissions target. And the Public Service Commission also notes that implementing what’s called a renewable portfolio standard -- basically, a regulatory requirement that renewables make up some share of power generation -- is extremely politically difficult and very unlikely in Wyoming.

BALLARD: Speaking of politically difficult, did either agency talk about the impact this would have on the coal industry?

JOYCE: Yes. So, there’s little doubt that this plan will reduce overall coal consumption in the US. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest carbon polluters and the EPA estimates that under the plan coal will go from producing 40 percent of the nation’s power today to 30 percent in 2030. I should say though that there’s disagreement over how much Wyoming coal production would be impacted. Some experts say it would actually increase, because production costs are lower in Wyoming than elsewhere and Wyoming coal is low-sulphur, which makes it cleaner. Other experts say Wyoming coal production will decrease under the plan. The Public Service Commission cites an analysis in their comments which says the Clean Power Plan will result in a 30 to 40 percent production cut in the state. Big numbers. And the Public Service Commision uses that to reinforce the argument that the target is unrealistic, saying that the EPA plan will cause Wyoming’s economy to contract, and that will make emissions reductions more difficult. That’s a little bit roundabout, but basically thee argument is that if Wyoming’s economy is hurt by the plan, then it will be more difficult for it to spend the money necessary to increase energy efficiency.

BALLARD: So, the state isn’t happy with the plan. What happens now?

JOYCE: Well, this is not anywhere close to being over. The state was commenting on the draft rule. The final rule isn’t scheduled to come out until June of 2015. And given that the EPA has received more than... almost 2 million comments, that might be optimistic. Ultimately, if the plan moves forward as is and the state decides not to come up with its own strategy for reducing emissions, then the federal government will come in and impose a plan and that would almost certainly lead to lawsuits. And Minier is pretty confident that even the feds couldn’t come up with a plan that would get the state to the level of emissions reduction that's necessary.

MINIER: If the feds were to take it over tomorrow and try to apply the principles they want us to apply, they wouldn’t be able to do it.

JOYCE: So, we’ll have to wait and see what the federal government has to say about that. But don’t expect this to be resolved anytime soon.

BALLARD: We'll definitely be keeping our eyes on it.