Bill to save coal power plants signed, skeptics abound

By Ramsey Scott

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — A bill signed by Gov. Mark Gordon on Friday aims to keep Wyoming's coal-fired power plants online and in business by requiring a utility to try to sell the facility first before decommissioning it.

But critics see the move as temporarily extending the life of outdated and costly coal-fired plants at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.

Senate File 159, sponsored by Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, would force power companies who wish to decommission a coal-fired power plant to seek a buyer first. If a new company bought the plant, the bill requires the utility that sold the plant to buy back the power, even if a cheaper source is available.

Dockstader said the bill was about protecting small communities like Kemmerer, in his district, which is home to PacifiCorp's coal-fired Naughton Plant. PacifiCorp's plant shutting down would take away about 600 jobs in a town that has a population of about 3,500 people.

That type of economic devastation is what Dockstader said he is trying to avoid with SF 159. During the signing ceremony, Dockstader choked up when talking about his own grandparents' ability to put food on the table and send their children to school because of the coal industry.

"It's about trying to keep people employed, but finding that balance out there, too," Dockstader said after the signing. "I think it has the potential to (keep those people employed). That's what we hear from people in the industry."

"It's about trying to keep people employed, but finding that balance out there, too," Dockstader said after the signing. "I think it has the potential to (keep those people employed). That's what we hear from people in the industry."

Dockstader said in talking with those in the energy industry, he found there was a potential for plants to be kept alive by providing a framework like the one included in SF 159.

The bill won major support in both chambers of the Legislature and was praised by Gordon during the bill signing Friday. He said Wyoming's future was tied to coal and praised the energy industry's work to reduce the carbon footprint of coal energy.

"Coal has long been one of Wyoming's paramount industries," Gordon said during the ceremony. "And I think back a few years ago about the great strides the coal industry had made in reducing emissions, reducing carbon dioxide. Really, no other industry has done as much as coal has to reduce their carbon footprint.

"Wyoming is leading the way with new technologies, ways to address this issue that don't put people out of work and don't just follow political fashion. It's about driving forward to the future."

While the bill was popular with many in the Legislature, outside of the temporary Capitol, there are those who remain skeptical, at best, about SF 159. Many see it as Wyoming state government interfering in the free market, and keeping utility providers from seeking the most cost-effective way to provide energy to customers.

"They're asking the citizens of Wyoming who pay energy to pay more to keep coal plants going. In one sense, it's a very socialist program," said Jason Shogren, the Stroock Chair of Natural Resource Conservation and Management at the University of Wyoming. "The economics of it is clear. It's asking ratepayers to pay more, for consumers to subsidizes producers."

Shogren said the bill could cost tens of millions of dollars a year to keep coal-fired plants running, which will be placed on the backs of Wyoming energy users. He cited an estimate that showed prices would increase by about $1,000 annually for energy users if plants were sold under the conditions of the bill.

Dockstader said he thought the idea of skyrocketing rates wouldn't be a reality because of SF 159. The state Public Service Commission would help to regulate how rates would be set if a power plant was sold as part of the new law.

"I'm not concerned about that at all. I think we've got the Public Service Commission involved, we've got all those safety nets in place," he said. "That's why they're there. We have a process; let's let it work."

There is no question there's a negative impact for communities when a coal-fired power plant closes in their backyard, Shogren said. But artificially extending the life of a plant in order to avoid immediate hardship can only solve the issue for so long.

Shannon Anderson, an attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said SF 159 would only serve to distract Wyoming from having the hard conversation about the future of coal. Even with the rollback of major environmental regulations made by the Trump administration, coal has taken a massive hit, in large part due to cheaper natural gas and other sources of energy.

"It's not the right solution for coal-impacted communities," Anderson said. "It inserts the Legislature into utility economics, and requires utilities to go through a process they don't have to go through in any other part of the country. It creates extra prices, it creates ratepayer uncertainty, and what's worse, it won't help these communities.

"It can't do what supporters want it to do, which is to make coal more economical than it is."

Rob Godby, an economist with the University of Wyoming, said one of the biggest impacts SF 159 would have on the state is something that's not even stated in the bill. By creating roadblocks to closing inefficient power plants, utilities would instead look to shut down coal-fired power plants in other states.

While that will keep Wyoming's plants in operation in the near term, many of the facilities, like the Naughton Plant, were built in the 1960s and '70s and are nearing the end of their usability, Godby said.

"At end of the day, it probably only postpones what is inevitable," Godby said. "It's just a stopgap measure. What the state really needs to think hard about is how do we approach the transition that's going to have to occur in these communities" when these plants finally shut down.