The Wyoming House of Representatives on Monday killed an amendment requiring the Wyoming Public Service Commission to impose a 15-year moratorium on retiring coal-fired power plants in the state.
Several representatives who voted against the measure, however, expressed tentative support for the idea of a moratorium in a standalone bill yet to be drafted.
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) brought the amendment to House Bill 30 – Public utility assessment late last week. The House defeated it days later by a vote of 38-22. The bill lived on without the amendment, and a similar amendment could re-appear in HB-30 when it is considered in the Senate.
The lawmaker brought a similar amendment on HB 30 last week, which failed by a tie vote 30-30.
Gray brought the amendment because he’s frustrated at the legislative and executive branches’ efforts so far to slow or stop a trend to retire Wyoming coal power plants ahead of schedule, he said.
The issue has been at the forefront of Wyoming policy and politics since early 2019. That’s when the state’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, notified the Wyoming PSC that it was considering early retirement of several of its coal-fired power units in the state because they are becoming more costly to ratepayers than investing in new renewable energy generation.
Gray told fellow lawmakers that the PSC, which has authority to regulate rates imposed on Wyoming ratepayers by monopoly utility providers, ought to align itself with the Legislature’s goal of forcing utilities to keep Wyoming coal plants in operation for as long as possible.
“They [Wyoming PSC commissioners] are going to make decisions about whether we accede to these demands that, frankly … are very biased for these closures of coal-fired power plants [and eliminating] thousands of Wyomingites’ jobs,” Gray told House members Monday. “I think we need to exhibit the legislative oversight, and a vehicle to do that, which is in this bill, that they’re going to have a moratorium on the approval of closures of a coal-fired power plant until 2035.”
Many representatives said they supported the intention — as well as the “message” — of Gray’s amendment, but still couldn’t support the measure.
The primary objection was that the amendment appeared to hold hostage the purpose of HB-30, which is a vehicle for the Wyoming PSC to adjust its assessment on Wyoming ratepayers to fund its operations. That assessment has generated less revenue in the COVID-19 pandemic and precipitous use of electricity, squeezing the PSC’s budget outlook.
Gray’s amendment would have mandated that if the Legislature grants the Wyoming PSC the ability to raise more operational support via HB 30, it would have to also impose a 15-year moratorium on coal plant closures in the state.
“This is the place — legislative oversight,” Gray told lawmakers. “This is where we do it, folks, where we say, this is what we want them to do as part of their funding, part of their mandate.”
That didn’t sit well with fellow representatives — even those who champion the cause of forcing utilities to keep Wyoming coal plants in operation despite cost concerns.
“As I see it, this amendment is something that’s supposed to help the coal industry, and I’m 100% for that,” Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Sheridan) said. “But I think this just isn’t the right amendment in the right bill to do this. Strong-arming the commission to strong-arm the [PSC-regulated coal utilities], I just don’t think it’s the best way.”
Others warned that a moratorium on coal plant closures in Wyoming — while intended to benefit the state’s coal industry — might unduly burden ratepayers in the state.
“I think there’s numerous unintended consequences, but the other in particular is the — potentially — catastrophic result to our ratepayers,” Rep. Pat Sweeney (R-Casper) said.
Sweeney is worried that Wyoming lawmakers are so intent on retaining the coal-fired power that other states are abandoning that the state could become an “island” of coal-fired power with its escalating costs falling on the shoulders of Wyoming ratepayers, he said.
“I’m fearful that our ratepayers would pick up the tab to keep burning coal because the other ratepayers in other states have already said ‘we don’t want that power,’” Sweeney said.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to add that Rep. Chuck Gray brought a similar amendment on HB 30 last week, which failed by a tie vote 30-30.