When Gov. Mark Gordon took to the dais at the dawn of the 2023 legislative session, he made few, if any, surprising remarks in his State of the State address.
He called for all people to have access to affordable, quality health care. He thanked veterans and deployed Wyoming National Guard members and acknowledged the state’s severely stressed watersheds. He also didn’t miss the opportunity to take aim at the Biden administration, particularly for its energy policies.
The address is the one time during session that lawmakers from both the Senate and the House squeeze into the lower chamber at the state capitol in Cheyenne, shoulder to shoulder with the state’s top five elected officials and the Wyoming Supreme Court’s chief justice. To this audience in January, Gordon reiterated his view that Wyoming leads the nation in “advanced carbon innovation.”
“Change and innovation are inevitable — they always have been,” the second-term Republican said. “Carbon capture is essential if we are to address climate change and provide a catalyst in the path forward for fossil fuel production in our state.”
The remarks portrayed the vision Gordon has espoused, doubled down on and made his priority initiative as chairman of the Western Governors’ Association. With the help of technological advances in carbon capture and sequestration, coal and other fossil fuels are a way to address, not exacerbate, climate change. He’s called this a “carbon negative” approach since taking office in 2018.
Now, however, 30 lawmakers and Secretary of State Chuck Gray are accusing the governor of making a “sweeping policy change,” which he announced to a Harvard University audience instead of the people of Wyoming.
The controversy began on Oct. 24.
The day before, Gordon had delivered remarks at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. The discussion was part of a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, which regularly hosts heads of state, leaders in politics, business, arts and the media, as well as academics and activists, according to its website. Recent speakers have included former Trump administration officials, former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos.
As reported on Oct. 24 by the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, Gordon “discussed the future of the state’s climate response economy.” He described “new carbon capture technologies, forest management, nuclear energy, and geothermal technology as on ‘the entire spectrum of things that we can do to produce reliable, dispatchable energy that people require and need at affordable costs,’” the Crimson reported. He also expressed frustration with the federal government.
The afternoon the story was published, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus issued a press release. In particular, the hard-line group of Republican lawmakers, who are often at odds with more moderate members of their party, criticized Gordon for being quoted as saying, “Wyoming is the first that has said that we will be carbon negative.”
“Who is the ‘we’ referred to by Governor Gordon? And whatever it means to be ‘carbon negative,’ we aren’t entirely sure,” the press release states.
“Why would Governor Gordon share this drastic change in policy with this kind of audience, but not his own neighbors?”
From there, the media stir gained steam, with Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) speaking with Fox News Digital for an Oct. 26 story.
“I was embarrassed that our chief executive would go to a pro-Hamas, pro-China school and appease an anti-fossil fuel crowd,” Bear said. “I was embarrassed that someone who campaigned as a conservative is ready to close the coffin on coal, oil and gas in his state. He has given in to the [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Al Gore hysteria that is, in fact, disputed science.”
The press release was only the beginning of the attacks on Gordon over his Harvard speech.
“In recent days our Governor has been promoting the Biden/AOC ‘green new deal’ agenda that Wyoming must become ‘carbon negative’ in order to save the world from climate change,” Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) wrote in a Nov. 9 email to Senate Republicans obtained by WyoFile.
“These concerns have led me to work with a group of like minded Legislators, Citizens and Scientists to call for an actual debate on the role of CO2 in the atmosphere and its affect [sic] on greenhouse gas emissions,” Steinmetz wrote before inviting her colleagues to sign a letter calling on Gordon to attend a public debate on the issue.
“We must not so quickly label Wyoming industries and individuals as polluters and upend western civilization as we know it because CO2 emissions without an honest and factual debate on this issue where both sides have an opportunity to present their arguments,” Steinmetz wrote in the email.
Thirty lawmakers and Secretary Gray added their names to the letter.
“We, the undersigned members of the Wyoming legislative and executive branches, joined by our allies, the scientists of the CO2 Coalition, took notice of the sweeping policy change you announced for Wyoming in your speech last month at Harvard University,” the letter states.
Established by William Happer, a former advisor to the Trump administration, CO2 Coalition promotes climate change denialist claims and is funded by energy executives and conservative foundations that fight environmental regulations, according to E&E News, a national publication that covers energy and the environment.
Gordon’s office received the letter on the afternoon of Nov. 10, according to Michael Pearlman, spokesperson for the governor.
“The comments in Senator Steinmetz’s email are completely inaccurate, deliberately misleading, and mischaracterize Governor Gordon’s views on fossil fuels and green energy,” Pearlman said in a statement. “To be clear, Governor Gordon has never supported the ‘green new deal,’ or labeled Wyoming industries and individuals as polluters.”
Pearlman highlighted several remarks Gordon made in his 2019, 2020, and 2021 State of the State speeches wherein he laid out his vision for “Wyoming to become net negative through the continued use of fossil fuels” and “innovative solutions.”
“The idea of being net negative is about using a coal-fired power plant, biofuels from our forests and carbon capture and sequestration as a more practical means to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, instead of just changing to wind or solar,” Pearlman said.
Additionally, Pearlman pointed to several bills lawmakers have passed in support of the development of carbon capture, utilization and storage — directly pushing back on the accusation Steinmetz made that the Legislature had not done so.
“Senator Steinmetz has also voted in support of [carbon capture, utilization and storage], joining her fellow senators in unanimously passing Senate File 47 – Carbon Storage and sequestration-liability in 2022.”
Legislative Service Office records indicate the bill passed the Senate in a 30-0 vote on third reading.
And despite some headlines and opinion pieces, the governor’s office has not agreed to a debate. Instead, Pearlman left the door open, but stopped short of a commitment.
“Despite the inaccuracies raised in the email and letter, the governor is happy to entertain an opportunity to properly present his position on Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) in a public forum focused on finding solutions to keeping our core industries viable and not just political grandstanding,” Pearlman wrote.
The letter gave Gordon a deadline of “on or before” Friday to respond. As of Wednesday, he had not.