Gov Mead begs for coal’s rescue while denying man’s role in climate crisis
— May 16, 2014
Against the backdrop of dire climate reports (climate change is a growing national security threat, the inevitable loss of the Western Antarctic ice sheet will surpass the predicted rate of sea level rise) what seems to scare Wyoming’s top elected officials the most is what it means for the state’s coal mining industry.
The mining industry and the $1.2 billion in annual revenue Wyoming reaps from it are indeed under threat. After peaking at more than 460 million tons in 2008, Wyoming coal production has declined to a pace of about 400 million tons annually today. St. Louis-based Arch Coal and St. Louis based Peabody Energy recently posted massive earning losses, due in part to their Wyoming coal operations.
The state and the coal industry’s U.S. electric utility customers are preparing for legal battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its proposed rule — due out in June — to cap CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants, followed by another new rule to ratchet down CO2 emissions from the existing coal-fired power plant fleet.
It’s a serious threat to Wyoming’s economy — long reliant on coal as a steady revenue base to boom-and-bust energy extraction. It’s no surprise that Wyoming leaders are fighting mad about it. Gov. Matt Mead (R) and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality Administrator Todd Parfitt have laid out a series of legal and regulatory complaints about how EPA is moving forward on a number of rules to reduce a host of coal plant emissions (Gov. Mead recently estimated his administration has about seven pending lawsuits against EPA). Many of the points are legitimately debatable. There are also legitimate concerns for what it means to utility ratepayers (all of us) to make a significant shift away from coal when the nation is ill-prepared to launch renewable energy and efficiency alternatives at large scale, and in short order.
Yet in their rally to preserve Wyoming’s coal industry, our elected leaders offer only callous acknowledgement of the threat of climate change — both as it relates to the economic and human health toll around the world, and as it relates to Wyoming’s non-fossil fuel resources that also drive the state’s economy and cultural well-being.
In recent months, Gov. Mead’s message on climate change has evolved from agnostic to “skeptical.” And he seems bewildered at the national attention that view has earned.
At a press conference on Monday I asked Gov. Mead, “In your mind, how urgent is the need to address climate change? Is it urgent enough to justify any federal regulatory approach to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal?”
Gov. Mead’s response: “As you know, I look at it a little bit different. I mean … I’m skeptical on that issue, but I’m not skeptical on terms of what the markets are doing. As I mentioned earlier, we see the markets on coal being hurt. And so, in terms of markets, I think there is an urgency for the state and the federal government to help find as many solutions for coal as possible.”
He added, “I think that’s not only a market issue, but as with any energy source, I think all of us should have a goal in how to make sure it’s being used the best way possible and as environmentally friendly as possible.”
Two days later, Gov. Mead gave the keynote address at the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s Spring Energy Conference in Cheyenne. He tried to diminish the relevance of whether he believes man’s role in climate change is real by saying it didn’t really matter that he’s a skeptic. More important is that he’s focused on solutions — for coal.
“When it comes to the current debate of this issue on air quality — on climate change, global warming — whatever people prefer,” he said, “I remain skeptical that global warming is by human activity. … I’m not a scientist. I could be wrong on this.”
He added, “Whatever your views are, shouldn’t we all say coal is a valuable resource (and) let’s find solutions?”
In the U.S. we are 40 percent reliant on coal for baseload power generation (down from 51 percent reliant less than 10 years ago), and in China the population is about 80 percent reliant on coal for baseload power generation. There’s no doubt that mothballing the nation’s and the world’s current coal power plant fleet on short order would create a human health and economic crisis itself. But offering only parenthetical concern to the urgency to curb manmade carbon emissions is dangerous, too.
This view, held by Gov. Mead, Wyoming’s legislative leaders, and its congressional delegation, seems to have pacified them in the belief that — with no regulatory guidance — the U.S. and the rest of the coal-dependent nations will rally behind carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies to preserve the world’s existing coal fleet and to even expand the use of coal. And, that that’s a sufficient response to climate change.
In his keynote address to the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s (WIA) Spring Energy Conference on Wednesday, Gov. Mead expanded his stump speech on coal to include a line of reasoning championed by coal producers and port developers working to expand coal exports to Asia: We must expand the use of cheap coal to lift the world’s impoverished populations into the growing middle class, who greatly benefit from better living conditions provided by affordable electricity.
“The production of coal is not a selfish interest. It is good for the country (and good for the world),” Mead said.
This pitch was perhaps most clearly stated by another speaker at the WIA event on Wednesday — Andy Roberts, principal analyst for international thermal coal for the firm Wood Mackenzie: “The worst thing for the environment is living in poverty.”
Roberts went on to insist that China is determined — obligated, even — to “electrify the countryside” with coal-based electricity, and in short order, because those rural and poor populations of China demand the same standard of living enjoyed by their country’s growing urban populations. When I was in China in 2009, I heard a much more nuanced message; that poor, rural areas want a higher standard of living and relief from the disastrous health impacts of industrial coal emissions.
It would be fantasy to expect the governor and the rest of Wyoming’s high-level officials in the GOP-dominated state — where fossil fuels feed about 70 percent of the state’s budget — to cede any degree of ratcheting down the use of coal. But they risk diminishing their legitimacy with Wyoming citizens (not just their die-hard voting base), as well as their national and international partners (who, by the way, do understand man’s role in climate change) in getting onboard with their CCS will happen with no regulatory guidance strategy by ignoring the world’s consensus, concern, and determination to curb carbon emissions.
Perhaps it does matter whether Wyoming officials acknowledge man’s role in climate change. If Gov. Mead understands the market realities of climate and coal better than he understands the science of climate change, he might understand that telling Florida, New Jersey, Bangladesh, the Philippines and the rest of the world that man-caused carbon emissions are of no concern and require no concerted effort is a non-starter when it comes to helping out Wyoming’s coal-reliant economy.
In the meantime, Gov. Mead and his colleagues might find it increasingly difficult to make the case that the world’s focus should be to preserve the use of coal in the headwinds of reports warning that the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is sapping proteins from crops, reports that for the entire month of April the atmospheric CO2 concentration averaged out to over 400 parts per million (a warning sign that we’ve already overloaded the atmosphere with CO2 for mankind’s liking), and that Asian cities are choking from smog and thousands of people are dying from pollution.
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has covered energy and natural resource issues in Wyoming for 16 years. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer
If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.