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Gordon slams Wyoming Freedom Caucus for coal-policy misinformation

The governor’s gloves are off after the hard-line group of Republicans authored an op-ed that made several ‘inaccurate claims’ including criticizing him for vetoing legislation a year before he even took office.

Gov. Mark Gordon at the beginning of the 2024 Wyoming Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

By Maggie Mullen

Gov. Mark Gordon blasted the Wyoming Freedom Caucus this week in a letter and subsequent interview with WyoFile after the hard-line group of Republican lawmakers attacked the governor in an op-ed that, among other things, failed to get basic facts straight regarding Wyoming’s past and present coal-related litigation. 

At the center of the dispute lies the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s recent proposal to end future coal leasing in the Powder River Basin — the nation’s largest coal supplier and longtime pillar of Wyoming’s economy. 

Gordon blamed the Biden administration for a “lack of regard for the environment, for working people, and for reliable, dispatchable energy,” and promised legal action when, or if, the decision is signed and finalized by the federal government. 

Sixteen members of the Freedom Caucus, in turn, blamed Gordon in an op-ed sent to media outlets Wednesday. Multiple outlets published it without noting basic inaccuracies in the piece, including a charge that Gordon vetoed a coal litigation bill in 2018 — before he was even the governor. 

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) and other members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus at the 2024 Wyoming Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

The group implored the governor to mount an immediate court challenge, instead of waiting for the state to have legal standing. The group also faulted the governor for a Trump administration decision and a gubernatorial veto from before he was governor. 

The Freedom Caucus taking aim at the chief executive is not new, but rather a hallmark of the last several months, including last fall when the group accused the governor of abruptly changing his long-held and publicly touted stance on climate change and energy policy. The governor’s spokesman at the time highlighted inaccuracies in the claims, but avoided going beyond that.

Now, however, Gordon has sharpened his tone and is calling the Freedom Caucus out by name, going so far as to characterize the group’s criticisms as nothing more than a campaign strategy. (Gordon is not up for reelection, but all House members — including the 16 letter signers — and senators in even-numbered districts are.)

“I would say that this election is a really important one and either you’re going to vote for people who find much more value in firing off inaccurate press releases, or you’re going to vote for people who have the best interests of the state at heart and want to work towards that,” Gordon told WyoFile. 

“These are not simple issues. And so trying to address them by just making noise isn’t going to help keep people’s jobs. It isn’t going to keep these industries core and it isn’t going to position Wyoming to continue the leadership role that we have.”

Background

In June 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a deadly blow to Wyoming’s lawsuit against Washington state over a planned coal export terminal there. 

The lawsuit, filed by Wyoming’s attorney general and backed by Gordon’s administration in January 2020, alleged Washington violated the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause by halting the development of a proposed coal export terminal, effectively prevented landlocked states like Wyoming from shipping coal overseas. 

A loaded coal train rolls through Gillette in March 2020. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

When Gordon announced in October 2020 that the U.S. Supreme Court had asked the Trump administration’s Department of Justice to file an opinion on the case, many considered it a promising sign after the case had hit several major hurdles. 

The Trump administration, however, decided not to file an opinion before leaving office. Subsequently, the Biden administration’s solicitor general asked the court to not take up the case. The court declined to hear it. 

Op-eds and letters

In their op-ed, the Freedom Caucus cast the high court’s decision as Gordon’s fault. 

“Wyoming’s appeal was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court not on the merits, but on procedural grounds — the state, at your direction, filed our case too late for it to be heard in a timely manner.” 

The letter goes on to say, “this came two years after your veto of a 2018 bill to initiate litigation against Washington State for blocking access to the pacific markets who desperately wanted our clean coal.” 

Gordon, however, was not governor at that time. 

“I shouldn’t have to refute the misstatement about a veto of a bill passed by the State Legislature in 2018. As Treasurer at the time, I had no capacity to do so,” Gordon wrote in his letter. “I was inaugurated as Governor in January of 2019. If you were there, you will remember my State of State indicated we would pursue a commerce clause case against Washington State.” 

Gov. Mark Gordon speaks Thursday, April 4, 2024, at a meeting of Turning Point USA’s University of Wyoming chapter. Gordon shared his views on energy and carbon with the students. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

At that time, only one of the letter signers was a member of the Legislature — Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis), who had just begun his first term. 

Separately, Gordon blocked lawmakers in 2019 from appropriating $250,000 in order to take legal matters into their own hands on the Washington coal port terminal front. The governor vetoed the bill on the basis that Wyoming needed to speak with one voice, not two — a philosophy similar to the one Gordon used in March to veto the Legislature’s $75 million land-use legal fund. 

That kind of approach only causes confusion, Gordon told WyoFile. 

“Suddenly, you’re in front of a judge and you’ve got two people purporting to represent the state of Wyoming’s interest,” Gordon said. “That’s of no help.” 

Gordon also refuted the characterization that the lawsuit had been untimely. 

“Despite persistent efforts on the part of both Wyoming and Montana, the President’s Solicitor did not respond until after the presidential administration changed,” Gordon wrote. 

Conveyors pile coal at the Jim Bridger power plant outside Rock Springs on Jan. 19, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“Thus, the statement made in your inaccurate and misleading letter that the timing of Wyoming’s entrance in this case was the cause of the final unfavorable ruling is categorically false.” 

Chief among the Freedom Caucus’ criticism is a demand to take immediate legal action.

“We implore you to step up, fight back, and protect Wyoming, first and foremost by filing a protest with the Bureau of Land Management, and by preparing for a full-fledged legal battle now — not later,” the op-ed states. 

Gordon, however, submitted comment letters in November 2022 and August 2023, both of which pushed back on the BLM’s plans. 

“Somewhat problematically, to my knowledge, none of the signatories of your letter participated in this public comment period, nor were any present at the public meetings hosted by the BLM in Gillette, according to my staff in attendance,” Gordon wrote in Thursday’s letter. “Please correct me if I am mistaken.” 

On the legal challenge front, Gordon said multiple state agencies are currently cooperating and preparing “the most favorable administrative record possible” for “any potential future legal actions.” 

“Since the legal experts among the Sixteen Honorable Legislators have become so focused on the timing of case filings, perhaps they might comprehend that no legal action can be taken until a final Record of Decision is signed and the decision is finalized by the federal government,” Gordon wrote. 

Reps. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) and Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) converse during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. Both are members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Filing a suit prematurely, Gordon added, would subject the state “to an easy legal challenge on timeliness that would likely get it dismissed with prejudice. 

“Wyoming, you can be sure, will respond forcefully and strategically when appropriate. We are in the trenches fighting while some seem content to just make noise.”

The letter signers include: Reps. Winter, Bill Allemand (R-Casper), John Bear (R-Gillette), Jeremy Hardolson (R-Wheatland), Scott Heiner (R-Green River), Ben Hornok (R-Cheyenne), Chris Knapp (R-Gillette), Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton), Sarah Penn (R-Lander), Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody), Daniel Singh (R-Cheyenne), Allen Slagle (R-Newcastle), Scott Smith (R-Lingle), Tomi Strock (R-Douglas) and Jeanette Ward (R-Casper). 

What now?

The BLM’s recent action opened a 30-day “protest” period, whereas a final order is due later this year.

Members of the public — and the Legislature — can submit a written protest by visiting the BLM’s Filing a Plan Protest page for instructions. Protests must be submitted by June 17.


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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