Economic, Existential Angst Mark Start of Utility Investigation

Economic, existential angst mark start of utility investigation

Kemmerer area residents listen during a more than  three hour public comment period  that occurred when the Wyoming  Public Service Commission  visited the town.  (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)


By Andrew Graham for

One by one last Tuesday evening, active and retired coal workers, small business owners and local politicians voiced deep economic anxiety and called on the Wyoming Public Service Commission to stave off an energy transition some here see as an existential threat.

“I have a very strong concern about whether Lincoln County can survive,” Lincoln County Treasurer Jerry Greenfield told the commission.

The state’s utility regulator visited Kemmerer and Rock Springs last week to take public comment in two communities where coal and coal-powered electricity generation have long been economic cornerstones. The comments will be incorporated into a PSC investigation into utility company PacifiCorp’s plan for early retirement of coal-fired power plant units in Wyoming.

Since PacifiCorp first indicated interest in transitioning away from coal power in favor of wind and solar, some of Wyoming’s political leaders have begun to eye the PSC as a potential lever to protect coal country jobs. The posture state politicians are adapting toward the energy transition mirrors the sentiments of many in southeastern Wyoming.

“We don’t want you to pay too much attention to the radicals in California and those people, and let them make your decision for you,” Cokeville resident Sharon Dayton said. “We want to keep on burning Wyoming coal.”

PacifiCorp’s Naughton Plant outside Kemmerer on a cold January day. Residents here much prefer the sight of exhaust coming from the plant than rows of wind turbines or fields of solar panels, based on comments at Jan. 28’s meeting with the Wyoming Public Service Commission. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The crowd, some still clad in safety clothing from mine, railroad or the Naughton coal plant work, rose to their feet several times over the course of the meeting.

Many stood when Rob Piippo, the president and general manager of the Kemmerer Coal Mine, asked all miners to stand. More stood when Piippo urged retired miners and the families of miners to rise.

They also stood when Dr. Karl Robinson, a dentist, asked those in the room who breathe out carbon dioxide to stand — a jab at those who say CO2 is driving climate change. Those who trust the scientific evidence connecting climate change to humanity’s expanding CO2 emissions are “pointy-headed liberals,” Robinson said.

Polling suggestsmajority of Americans, and Wyoming residents, trust the scientific conclusion on climate change.

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“This is just political correctness run amok,” Robinson said. “Coal is cheap, it’s affordable and it’s so reliable. We should hold on to it.”

The meeting underscored the resentment and worry of a region where many residents, who labored day and night to electrify the west coast for decades, now feel their way of life is being sacrificed to distant politics.

A man in a mine union sweatshirt watches a presentation by a PacifiCorp official before the public comment period began at a Jan. 28 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting in Kemmerer. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Wyoming’s extraction economy has always been tied to commodity prices. Still, some suggested what is at stake is not just what electric source dominates the market, but Wyoming’s ability to decide its own fate.

“It’s not about energy supply and demand or the environment,” said Sue Abrams, a councilwoman in the town of Star Valley Ranch. “It’s really about power and who is going to control what.”

“I want us to remain a sovereign state,” she said.

Locals questioned the reliability of renewable power, arguing it is propped up by subsidies and too untested to shoulder the demands of the electrical grid. Repeatedly, speakers portrayed a dark vision of a future where solar panels and wind turbines crowd Wyoming’s vistas and degrade its wildlife and where electricity prices rise even as rolling blackouts disrupt western cities.

“Wyoming is going to be covered with windmills, wind farms and solar farms,” said Rose Arndt, the mayor of Cokeville. “We’re going to lose our recreational beauty … We are going to become the armpit of the United States. Why? Because we allowed large powerful companies to come in and destroy what we in Wyoming love so very much.”

Natural gas extraction infrastructure lines the southern road into Kemmerer. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Cokeville councilman Taylor Allred also echoed concerns of renewable energy development harming wildlife. He distinguished wind and solar units from the prolific gas development that lines the southern road into Kemmerer in an interview after the meeting. Gas development “does not affect the wildlife after the initial drilling,” he told WyoFile.

Gas pads, “they don’t affect the sage grouse, they don’t affect the antelope,” he said. Renewable energy is treated more favorably by regulators when it comes to rules regarding wildlife death, he argued.

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‘Who we are’

Piippo, the mine manager, also spoke at the Rock Springs meeting the following day. “When the sun isn’t shining, when the wind isn’t blowing, it’s my team,” he said there. “My miners that are shipping the coal to that plant and keeping the power going so that people don’t freeze and people don’t starve.”

“Coal mining isn’t what we do. It’s who we are,” he said. Summing up much of the sentiment displayed over the two days, he said, “don’t allow this decision to erase part of who I am and who we are.”

A letter to the PSC from the Sweetwater County Commission detailed coal’s impacts on the economy in that county. Employment in mines and plants — around 929 jobs in Sweetwater County facilities — supports 5,103 county residents, or 12% of the population, the letter read. Those workers owned 1,394 homes, which is $27 million in assessed value for property taxes. Those workers’ property taxes are a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions in state and county taxes levied on the mines and plants themselves.

“The imminent retirement of coal-fired power plant units and the coal mines will create a void in the county,” the commissioners wrote.

Two women cross a street in downtown Rock Springs. The area’s economy will be impacted by coal mine and plant closures. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Beginning in June 2018, PacifiCorp held a series of public hearings and meetings about the creation of its Integrated Resource Plan. The plan outlines the course the company will take developing its electrical grid and power sources in coming years. PacifiCorp is the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, which operates in Wyoming. PacifiCorp is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway.

In Kemmerer, a local United Mine Workers union member, Martin Argyle, called that process “no better than the [U.S.] House of Representatives sham trial on impeachment.” He suggested the new plan — which was released in October — could raise electricity prices many times over.

Many commenters accused PacifiCorp of ignoring technical realities to please public service commissions in politically left-leaning states, which buy the vast majority of the company’s electricity.  As evidence they pointed to a coal plant study that was ordered by the Oregon Public Utility Commission. The study concluded that closing power plants will save hundreds of millions of dollars, leading to lower future rates for the company’s customers. Distrust of Oregon politicians led some to question the study’s veracity.

PacifiCorp has argued the study was part of its decision making, but did not drive the IRP. The company analyzed more than 120 different mixes of energy sources before making its choice. The corporation considers its plan well equipped to maintain grid reliability, said Rick Link, who directed the planning process.

“We made sure that in every hour we could meet not only enough energy generation to meet the customers needs,” Link told WyoFile, but that “we had sufficient extra [electricity] plus a cushion … and we added resources and costs to ensure that.”

Comments about power blackouts or large price spikes are “not consistent with the analysis we performed and are not supported by that,” Link said. “Folks are making their best estimate of how they think that works, and let’s say our perspective is we’ve looked at it and are comfortable frankly.”

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Kemmerer area residents listen to public comment during the Jan. 28 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting. Some in the crowd wore safety clothing suggesting employment at the mine, power plant or railroad. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Such arguments are not likely to sway residents like Argyle. “I learned a long time ago that figures don’t lie but liars figure,” he said.

“Come walk a mile in our shoes in Wyoming before you destroy us,” Argyle said to the utility officials. Argyle is retired, he told WyoFile, but said his 33-year-old son works in the coal mine.

Government levers

It’s not clear how the PSC’s investigation will address this angst. The commission did not respond to the commenters, saying they were collecting the testimony for their record. A court reporter accompanied the commission, occasionally interrupting speakers to have them repeat their words.

The comments are “something that we will summarize in our order that we issue at the conclusion of this proceeding some time in August,” Kara Fornstrom, the PSC chairwoman, told WyoFile. “There’s some obvious common themes,” she said, “issues that the commission is worried about as well such as [electrical grid] reliability and the underlying economics.”

“That’s the point of the investigation is for us to be able to answer those questions,” she said.

The community’s economic anxiety, “that came across loud and clear,” Fornstrom said. “I’m not sure how we’ll respond to that … The commissions’ job, we are economic regulators.”

The PSC does not have the authority to disapprove the plans of the utility operating in several states. At the investigation’s end, the PSC will issue “findings of fact,” Fornstrom said.

Where the body can flex its muscles comes later, PSC general counsel Chris Petrie and Fornstrom both said. As the utility begins to implement its plan, it will need permission from the PSC to shutter a coal plant unit or build big new solar projects.

The Legislature and Gov. Mark Gordon seek to use the body’s authority to preserve the life of coal plants, passing a bill last year that would force the utility to seek a buyer for a coal plant unit before closing it. In conjunction, the state’s politicians seek to spend more money researching ways to minimize coal power’s climate impacts before the country moves on without it.

The Legislature has also considered more stringent measures, like holding utilities financially responsible for the “socioeconomic impacts” of their decisions. Lawmakers are also toying with some deregulation of the electrical grid.

Those actions were popular with the crowd in Kemmerer. Many commenters praised the new law to find coal plant buyers, brought by local Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton). Dockstader was in attendance at the meeting, along with many other state politicians from the area.

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Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), third from left, stands with area residents at the back of a crowded room during a Jan. 28 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting in Kemmerer. Several speakers praised Dockstader’s legislative efforts to preserve the life of coal plants, principally a bill that would force utilities to seek a buyer before retiring a plant unit. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Kemmerer city administrator Brian Muir called Dockstader’s bill “breakthrough legislation” that will give the town’s plant a chance to live on. The PSC is still in the process of crafting rules for the new law. Industrial power consumers, oil and gas companies seeking carbon for enhanced oil recovery and even cryptocurrency miners have all been floated as potential buyers for plants.

“It can be done. We just need to believe it,” Muir said.

Residents applaud the PSC’s investigation into whether PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power’s plans will impact reliable and affordable power, he said. “As a community we feel that these are not only Rocky Mountain Power’s customers, but our customers,” Muir said. “Our coal miners and power plant operators have served them well for decades.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.