By Cynthia Lummis
May 2, 2017 - There is cautious optimism permeating throughout Wyoming these days. A state that has been rattled by declining revenues, layoffs and bankruptcies has awoken to a new reality under the Trump administration. Coal, once again, has an ally in the White House.
During his campaign, President Trump made a promise to the workers, families and communities who rely on coal to reverse the regulatory onslaught that sent much of the industry into a tailspin. Less than three months into his presidency, he has already shown his commitment to keeping this promise.
A few weeks ago, President Trump signed executive orders to roll back the Clean Power Plan, reopen coal leasing on federal lands and rescind the royalty valuation rule. These are important first steps to leveling out what had become an exceptionally uneven playing field for coal producers.
However, repealing burdensome regulations alone will not ensure the long-term viability of coal, and lawmakers, miners and business leaders in Wyoming know it.
Historically, low natural gas prices have eroded coal’s market share. Eight years of extreme policies under President Obama aimed at regulating coal out of existence have manipulated the markets and forced many utility companies to shift their energy portfolios for both the near and short term — something we cannot fix overnight.
What’s more, coal still faces vocal opposition in many parts of the country. We now live in a political and social climate that calls for reduced emissions. The truth is, the war on coal is not over. In fact, this swift change in policy trajectory under President Trump is likely to only embolden those who would like to eliminate the use of coal altogether.
Here in Wyoming, state and local lawmakers — under the leadership of Republican Governor Matt Mead — seized the "war on coal" as an opportunity to think long-term about the future of this energy source — about how we can ensure an abundant natural resource remains a reliable, affordable and attractive electricity option; about how we can facilitate policies and regulatory framework that provide predictability and reliability for coal producers; and about how we quell naysayers who would assume coal stay underground indefinitely.
While much of the nation was focused on debating climate change, Wyoming decided to go straight to solutions, specifically focusing on ways to not only remove carbon emissions from energy production, but to turn it into a commodity — an asset from which we could make money. Finding a win-win, we could lower costs for producers and consumers while eliminating the principal concern from coal opponents — carbon emissions.
More than three years ago, Wyoming put its money where its mouth is, investing $15 million for the design, construction and operation of a center to study the capture, sequestration and management of carbon emissions from a Wyoming coal-based power plant.
The state joined forces with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and Basin Electric Power Cooperative — which is hosting the facility at their Dry Fork Station outside of Gillette, Wyoming — to launch the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC).
Currently under construction and slated for opening this fall, the ITC will provide space for researchers to test technologies at a larger scale under real-world conditions. While many carbon-capture technologies are being developed and studied in laboratory settings, the ITC will be one of the few research and testing facilities in the world located at an operating coal-fired powered plant.
The first tenants of the Wyoming ITC will be the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE — a $20-million competition to turn carbon into an economically-viable product. The first phase of the competition is already underway and semifinalists are working on projects to transform carbon dioxide waste into building materials, biofuels and even plastics.
Wyoming’s leadership is already motivating other states to take action. In his 2017 State of the State address, Montana Democratic Governor Steve Bullock asked the state legislature to commit funds to the Wyoming ITC.
“I am asking that we get off the sidelines and join Wyoming’s efforts by committing $3 million and making it a joint project,” Bullock said.
The reason for other states looking to Wyoming? Coal country understands that when it comes to ensuring coal remains a permanent part of our energy mix in the 21st Century, technology is our path forward.
Now we need federal and private sector partners across the country to join Wyoming in making sound investments in our energy and national security. By finding technology solutions to best utilize a baseload domestic energy source, we can ensure our energy needs aren’t unnecessarily dictated by other countries, provide stable electricity costs for American families and spur jobs to grow our economy.
In Wyoming, we have long been subject to the regulatory whims of Washington and changing political and social climates. While we have every reason to feel confident in the Trump administration’s commitment to miners, their families and coal communities across the country, we need to stay focused on winning the war for the long-term.
We must continue forward with research and development; with a commitment to finding solutions that set coal up for success despite who is in office; with bold leadership and ingenuity — with technology.
Cynthia Lummis served as the U.S. representative for Wyoming's At-Large Congressional District from 2009 to 2017. She is the former chair of the Congressional Western Caucus, served on the House Natural Resources Committee and was a member of the Congressional Coal Caucus. Lummis served as a vice chairwoman of the Donald Trump-Mike Pence Presidential Transition Team.