Opinion: Coal communities need leadership, not finger-pointing from officials

Coal train
A coal train navigates its load through an s-curve near Coal Creek Jct. in the Powder River Basin. (Photo: Jerry Huddleston/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Opinion by , WyoFile

Wyoming officials can rant and cuss about the federal government’s coal policies as loudly and as angrily as they want, but it won’t change one fundamental fact: They have failed our coal communities and their woe-is-us, innocent-victim act is a load of rubbish.

I could use the Western equivalent of that assessment, something that’s found in abundance in horse pastures. But you get the idea.

Gov. Mark Gordon said he’s “furious” because none of the state’s applications to a federal coal community assistance program were selected as a finalist. The governor called it an example of D.C. politics “at its worst.”

The state’s all-GOP congressional delegation was equally outraged. Keep in mind that all three members voted against the American Rescue Plan Act, which contains the program that has drawn their ire.

Sen. John Barrasso called it a slap in the face to Wyoming’s energy workers. Sen. Cynthia Lummis said it was “just another example of the Biden administration’s tone-deaf approach to communities reliant on the energy industry.”

Rep. Liz Cheney said she voted against the Democratic-backed ARPA “because it’s clear that the funding in the legislation would not benefit the people of Wyoming.”

Let’s dissect that last criticism first, because it shows that instead of honestly addressing why Wyoming’s projects may have been rejected — and how they might be successful in future grant applications — all four politicians chose instead to keep singing their favorite tune, “The low-down war on coal blues.” (I’m pretty sure Nero played fiddle on the original recording.)

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It’s also blatantly untrue. Cheney knows ARPA will provide $1.1 billion in federal funds to Wyoming. The state will unquestionably benefit from that huge infusion of cash, which isn’t tied to the separate economic development competition.

When Wyoming failed to advance to the second phase of the “Build Back Better Regional Challenge,” the governor acted like it was the end of the world, instead of just yet another failure resulting in part from his administration’s inaction.

“These decisions are clearly political and not based on merit,” Gordon said in a joint statement with the delegation. “It is absolutely disingenuous to hear President Biden’s bureaucrats say they are concerned about our state when they slam the door on these communities’ future.”

Disingenuous? Like talking a big game while local economic development officials warned in August that they needed help from the state if they hoped to compete for the grants? The Wyoming Energy Authority and the Wyoming Business Council said months later that they would step up their respective games, but it was clearly too little, too late.

Here’s the reality: ARPA allocated $300 million to communities struggling to cope with the rapid shift from coal mining to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar. One-third of that amount was earmarked for the challenge program that has generated so much sound and fury from Wyoming’s leaders.

But $200 million will be spent on grants to coal communities throughout the nation, and Wyoming projects can — and should — apply for those funds, too.

While it would have been great for one of Wyoming’s applicants to be chosen for the BBBRC, the competition was fierce. It drew 529 applications, and only 60 were chosen as Phase 1 finalists. A mere dozen selected came from coal communities.

Yes, Wyoming is the leading coal-producing state, and cities like Gillette, Rock Springs and Kemmerer are obviously impacted by closed coal mines and the retirement of coal-fired power plants. But that doesn’t mean any application from Wyoming automatically deserves to be crowned a winner.

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An integral part of the BBBRC was to develop and strengthen “regional industry clusters” while embracing economic growth, creating good-paying jobs and enhancing U.S. global competitiveness.

“These are supposed to be regional partnerships, and a region is not Campbell County,” Sheridan businessman Logan Jenkins told WyoFile. He also said the criticism leveled at the feds by state officials reeks of hypocrisy.

Gordon’s histrionics in particular have no merit, since he knew what ARPA funding he’d recommend to the Legislature when he launched his anti-Biden rant. Three days later, he asked lawmakers to put $100 million into the “rainy day fund” to match private sector or federal funds for large-scale energy projects, including carbon capture for a coal-fired power plant, hydrogen hub, carbon sequestration and nuclear power projects.

 

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