Between plus-sized national parks and an otherworldly national monument easily replicated out of mashed potatoes, it’s easy to forget that Wyoming’s top economic activity isn’t outdoor recreation-based tourism. It's energy extraction. The economic livelihood of Wyoming, a vast and sparsely populated state where nearly half the total landmass is federally owned, has traditionally been dependent on fossil fuels.
But just because Wyoming is the United States’ top coal producer (and top uranium producer as well as a leader in natural gas and crude oil) doesn’t mean there’s not room at the proverbial table for renewable energy, particularly wind power, amidst all that relentless mining and drilling.
In fact, Carbon County in the south of the state, is the future home of the Chokeberry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, an under-development facility that will be the largest commercial wind farm in North America with a total of 1,000 turbines. Blessed with high-altitude prairies where blustery weather reigns supreme, Wyoming is, geographically speaking, well-equipped for large-scale wind power generation. In addition to the massive farm in Carbon County, there are currently over 20 sizable wind farms across the state, many of them located in former coal mining areas. Today, wind power represents 8 percent of Wyoming’s total energy portfolio — a figure that could easily grow by leaps and bounds.
However, instead of growing, the sale of wind power might be effectively outlawed in the state with one of the highest potentials for on-shore wind power generation.
Sticking with coal, no matter what
As Popular Science reports, Republican lawmakers in Wyoming have introduced a brazenly backwards bill that wouldn’t outright ban the production of commercial wind power — as well as commercial solar power — but would prohibit electric utilities within the state from selling energy to consumers that’s not sourced from oil, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear and coal, which is the source of roughly 90 percent of the electricity generated and consumed in Wyoming. While wind and solar power produced by large-scale Wyoming facilities and sold to out-of-state utilities would still be permitted under the bill and not subject to penalties, in-state utilities that defy the law would be slapped with a steep $10-per-megawatt hour fine.
While the sale of commercial wind and solar energy is restricted under the bill — Senate File 71, the “Electricity Production Standard” — it’s worth noting that small-scale production of renewable energy through rooftop solar panels and backyard wind turbines would get a pass as a pre-approved power source.
Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club's Wyoming chapter, refers to the bill as a "very shortsighted reaction by some of our state leaders who are determined to stick with coal no matter what.”
The group of "state leaders" mentioned by Wilbert represent (surprise, surprise!) Wyoming counties with longstanding coal mining operations — not exactly an eye-opener considering that coal is mined in 22 of Wyoming’s 23 counties. As PopSci notes, several of the politicians sponsoring the wind power-squashing bill are also staunch climate change deniers including Rep. Scott Clem, who refers to climate change as "not settled science."
“I don’t know how seriously to take it,” Rep. Marti Halverson, tells the Jackson Hole News & Guide, of Senate File 71. “My guess is that it’s a little push back to the legislation that is being passed in other states that’s saying, ‘No coal, no how.’” Halverson, who represents Wyoming's 22nd District, is not one of the seven representatives sponsoring the bill alongside state senators Larry Hicks and Ogden Driskill.
'I haven't seen anything like this before ...'
If passed and made law, the clean energy-squashing bill would take full effect in 2019. However, even one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Dave Miller, isn’t fully confident that it will pass at all. He relays to InsideClimate News that the bill’s chances of clearing both the state House and Senate are “50 percent or less.”
Miller, who represents Fremont County, a sprawling and mountainous county roughly the size of Vermont, tells InsideClimate News in an email: "Wyoming is a great wind state and we produce a lot of wind energy. We also produce a lot of conventional energy, many times our needs. The electricity generated by coal is amongst the least expensive in the country. We want Wyoming residences to benefit from this inexpensive electrical generation."
Considering that Wyoming is the Equality State, the fact that renewable energy is getting unequal — even downright antagonistic — treatment from state lawmakers is no doubt discouraging. However, it’s nothing new. Despite the state’s status as a largely untapped wind energy powerhouse, many elected officials have long been in the habit of clinging on to coal with all of their might as other states encourage and reward job-generating producers of clean energy.
One controversial method of keeping fossils fuels at the top of the energy heap is a statewide wind tax — the only such tax in the country. As PopSci notes, income tax-free Wyoming’s $1 per-megawatt-hour wind tax was passed four years ago to help fill a multi-million dollar gap in the gap state budget. Mostly, the wind tax has just prevented the state from reaching its full wind-powered potential. Last year, state lawmakers had the good sense to reject an ill-advised and unpopular proposal that would have raised the already egregious wind tax to $3 per megawatt-hour and further discourage wind farm operators from taking advantage of one of Wyoming's greatest natural assets: wind.
"I haven't seen anything like this before," remarks Shannon Anderson, director of conservation group the Powder River Basin Resource Council, on Wyoming's Republican-lead government's latest push towards a coal-dependent future. "This is essentially a reverse renewable energy standard."