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Climate change denial heats up at Wyoming Capitol

A group known for promoting misleading information about climate change won the attention — and hearts — of many Wyoming lawmakers this week.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) chairs an official Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee hearing at the Wyoming Capitol in February 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Sen. Cheri Steinmetz was clear: The committee chairwoman did not want to hear prevailing viewpoints about carbon dioxide and climate change.

Those who accept what climate scientists have known for decades — that the planet is warming because of human-caused CO2  emissions — need not speak up, the Lingle Republican said.

“If proponents of a different viewpoint wish to express that,” Steinmetz said, “they are free to have a hearing of their own.” 

That left room for only alternative theories, those that deny or discount the world-changing effect carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are having on human beings, other species and the climatic conditions of the planet. 

Purported experts invited to testify, and other speakers, including each lawmaker who spoke, expressed either disbelief that climate change was happening, or a belief that it is inconsequential, even beneficial.

Speakers with the CO2 Coalition testify at a Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee hearing. The advocacy group is known for spreading disproven claims about climate change. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Flanking Steinmetz in the Wyoming Capitol extension building auditorium were four members of the Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee: Sens. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), John Kolb (R-Rock Springs), Tim French (R-Powell) and Bob Ide (R-Casper). 

They nodded and smiled as they listened to presentations from speakers brought in from the CO2 Coalition. The group touted its theory — discredited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate scientists — that loading more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will not tip the planet’s climate into unlivable conditions.

William Happer, a physicist and co-founder of the CO2 Coalition, told lawmakers and attendees that those who believe climate science have been brainwashed. 

“I don’t know how you deprogram people from a cult,” Happer said, “it’s really sort of a cult.”

Pamphlets distributed by an advocacy group, the CO2 Coalition, were distributed at a Wyoming Legislature hearing this week. On the front, the pamphlet declares: “CO2 should be celebrated, not captured.” (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

But the science is clear. In fact, human-caused climate change has pushed Wyoming’s annual mean temperature upward by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit from 1920 to 2020, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. Wyoming’s highest elevations are warming even faster, already changing the seasonal pulse of water flows that the state’s economy is built around.

Climate change, which is already changing people’s lives in Wyoming, will have a dramatic effect on temperature regimes all across the state, according to University of Wyoming climate scientist Bryan Shuman. A place like Jackson, he said, will go from virtually never touching 90 degrees to getting that warm with regularity. 

“On the track we’re on by 2050, [Jackson] will pretty easily start to have about two weeks of 90 degree weather,” said Shuman, one of the lead authors of the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment. “By 2100, depending on whether we mitigate carbon emissions or not, [Jackson] either ends up staying around that two-week level or it gets up to about two months of 90 degree weather.”

Deniers’ road trip

The CO2 Coalition’s participation at the legislative hearing was part of a three-stop engagement in Wyoming. The Wyoming Republican Party teamed up with conservative group Turning Point USA to host speakers from the coalition for a series of events this week in Gillette, Cheyenne and at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Laramie resident Laurie Richmond attended the UW event and said she’s very concerned about Gov. Mark Gordon’s policy goal to capture and store more carbon than is emitted. 

The governor, Richmond told WyoFile, won’t even give the CO2 Coalition speakers “the time of day” — and she wasn’t happy about it. 

Richmond worried about the economic burden of current state policies that attempt to force carbon capture retrofits at Wyoming coal-fired power plants. So far, Wyoming ratepayers are being forced to cover more than $3 million in costs for utilities to study the feasibility of adding carbon capture at five coal-burning units in the state — studies that were mandated by the Wyoming Legislature. If the utilities actually implement carbon capture at the coal plants, Black Hills Energy customers in Wyoming could be tapped for up to $1 billion, and Rocky Mountain Power’s Wyoming customers could pay more than $2 billion, according to preliminary filings with the state.

William Happer, co-founder and Chairman of the CO2 Coalition, in the red tie, arrives at the University of Wyoming in Laramie Feb. 14, 2024. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

“This is all about government grifting,” Richmond said. “Can we really afford $1,000 electrical bills every month? So Gov. Gordon’s got a problem coming.”

In the Capitol, Steinmetz said at the onset that the Senate Agriculture hearing wasn’t intended to be a personal attack on the governor. That didn’t stop speakers from taking shots at his policies. 

“CO2 capture is unnecessarily costly and dangerous and therefore, it is not worth pursuing for the state of Wyoming — or anyone, for that matter,” Frits Byron Soepyan, a chemical engineer, told lawmakers. 

Gordon has defended his policies on national television, during his State of the State address and again Tuesday in Casper

The governor responds

“There are people that are going to say, ‘Climate is not changing.’ Or they’ll say, ‘It’s better to have more CO2.’ We can talk about all of that, but that doesn’t really matter,” Gordon said while speaking to business leaders in Casper on Tuesday.

More than 20 years of climate policy dictated from outside the state has moved markets toward lower-carbon energy sources, Gordon said. If Wyoming’s coal, oil and natural gas are going to remain viable, those industries must have technical solutions to reduce their carbon emissions, the governor has maintained.

Gov. Mark Gordon visits with City of Casper leaders during an Advance Casper event on Feb. 13, 2024. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“The reason I say that it doesn’t really matter [where Wyomingites stand on climate change] is that what we are seeing is a regulatory environment that says, ‘We need to move away from fossil fuels because that’s the only way that we can save the planet, and we need to move to renewables because that’s the only way that we can save the climate,’” Gordon said.  

“The most important thing is that Wyoming not stick its head in the sand,” he continued. “If [carbon capture] isn’t going to happen here, it’s going to happen — it is already happening in places like Texas and places like Louisiana. We really need to make sure that Wyoming is competitive, that it is a leader and that it is a place that people come to find the solutions.” 

Gordon and his chief energy advisor, Randall Luthi, are working with Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) and others on an idea that more equitably distributes both the cost of adding renewables and the cost of integrating fossil fuel carbon capture into the western electricity grid. All those capital costs — as well as long-term benefits — should be spread “system wide,” Luthi told WyoFile.

Wind turbines north of Medicine Bow, pictured Feb. 9, 2024. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

It will be a tough sell among Wyoming’s counterparts on the western grid, Gordon admitted. But it’s part of his signature “Decarbonizing the West” initiative as chairman of the Western Governors Association. Ultimately, Wyoming cannot impose such a system-wide “fee” on its own, Gordon told WyoFile. But the current electrical power regulatory regime doesn’t fairly distribute the cost of pursuing a net-zero electrical grid. 

“We’re all in this together,” Gordon said. “Instead of being a victim, Wyoming can say, ‘If you’re really interested in doing something about CO2, we got the answer. We got the answer from the bottom to the top.’”

A state of climate denial 

Steinmetz and other far-right lawmakers in the Legislature have tried to capitalize politically on Gordon’s carbon-capture advocacy. It’s fair to say their criticisms land with some residents of Wyoming, a state long financially dependent on revenue from carbon-producing industries and where fewer than half of residents believe humankind is driving climate change.

Approximately 38% of Wyoming residents believe “climate change is an extremely or very serious problem,” and 46% “have noticed significant effects from climate change over the past 10 years,” according to Colorado College’s annual Conservation in the West Poll, released earlier this month. Fifty-four percent “think that the low level of water in rivers is a serious problem,” according to the poll.

Still, Steinmetz’s and others’ efforts to make a spectacle of Gordon’s carbon policies haven’t gone over seamlessly. There was a fight, for example, over whether the Senate Agriculture Committee’s climate denier-led hearing should have been considered an official legislative event. 

In late January Steinmetz spread word of the hearing on official Wyoming Legislature letterhead. She challenged the governor’s authority to pursue a carbon-negative policy: “The Legislature must have a true cost-benefit analysis in order to make an informed policy decision regarding the governor’s decarbonization plans for the state of Wyoming,” the Goshen County senator said in a press release. 

CO2 Coalition Executive Director Gregory Whitestone spoke at the University of Wyoming on Feb. 14, 2024. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The Legislature’s leadership didn’t appreciate it. Two days later the speaker of the House, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) and the Senate president, Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) sent out another press release purportedly uncoupling the event from the Ag Committee. 

Notice of the hearing, however, remained on the Legislature’s website, and under the banner of the committee chaired by Steinmetz. 

The Legislative Service Office explained the decision in an email: “Under the Senate Rules a chairman can convene a meeting of their committee at any point during a legislative session to discuss items they deem to be relevant.” 

House Majority Floor Leader, Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), thought that leaving the hearing sanctioned was “appropriate,” given how “deeply involved agriculture is in the whole issue of climate change.” 

Parroting disproven claims 

Shuman, the UW climate scientist, missed Turning Point USA’s event with the CO2 Coalition speakers due to a conflict, but afterward he looked into their resumes and a short report they produced about Wyoming and climate change. 

“They are not climate scientists,” Shuman said.

The University of Wyoming professor took issue with some of the graphics the CO2 Coalition speakers presented. He was “shocked,” he said, by one graph purporting that annual average max temperatures have declined over the last 90 years in Wyoming, a “truly misleading” assertion. 

“Basically, every single weather station across the state refutes that this is the trend,” Shuman said.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) gives remarks at a press conference that followed a legislative hearing that promoted disproven claims about climate change. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Nevertheless, the CO2 Coalition speakers had a receptive audience with the Senate Ag Committee. The next day, Steinmetz and other hardline Republican members of the Legislature gathered for a follow-up press conference. 

“Our voters — the citizens of Wyoming — are rightly skeptical of this so-called crisis and permanent carbon capture and sequestration,” Steinmetz said. 

Ten members of the Legislature, plus Secretary of State Chuck Gray, spoke after Steinmetz. Some doubted climate change was happening, while others challenged the need to act and take steps like sequestering carbon. Yet other legislators repeated the CO2 Coalition’s primary disproven message: that the primary gas accelerating the climate crisis is actually beneficial. 

“We all know CO2 is good,” said Sen. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), a hydrographer with the State Engineer’s Office. “Plants have to have it. The more there is there, the plants do better.” 

Sen. Tim French (R-Powell) agreed.

Sen. Tim French (R-Powell) gives remarks at a press conference that followed a legislative hearing that promoted disproven claims about climate change. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“As a farmer, I need a lot of CO2 to grow my crops,” French said. “There’s a lot of hype out there from different individuals, but in my world, my business, I really need it.”

Climate scientists, however, came to consensus decades ago that the atmosphere needs less CO2 — at least if the goal is to inhabit a planet resembling the one we know today. In the middle of the 20th century the average annual temperature in Wyoming was about 40 degrees, Shuman said. Today, it’s approaching 43 degrees. 

“While that doesn’t sound like a huge amount, it’s worth keeping in mind that the difference between the last ice age and today is only about 5 to 7 degrees,” Shuman said. “Even a few degrees makes a big difference.” 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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