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Wyoming coal country remains frustrated with Gov. Gordon over federal ‘war on fossil fuels’

The governor’s town hall event in Gillette offered political and bureaucratic explanations, but left little time for public input or conversation.

A crowd of about 300 attended Gov. Mark Gordon's town hall meeting in Gillette on June 25, 2024. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

by Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

GILLETTE—Gov. Mark Gordon traveled to the heart of Wyoming’s coal country this week to address concerns that he’s too focused on carbon capture technologies for the sake of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and accusations that he’s not fighting hard enough against the Biden administration’s anti-fossil fuel policies. The effort mostly fell flat.

For starters, many of the approximately 300 locals, including dozens of coal miners who showed up for the Tuesday afternoon “town hall” event, disregard the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change. Several in attendance who inquired about Gordon’s carbon capture efforts remained unconvinced it’s a worthwhile effort.

Perhaps most frustrating for those in attendance, though, was Gordon and the seven-member panel he assembled — including representatives of the petroleum and mining industries and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) — spent the first 90 minutes of the two-hour event giving detailed accounts of the regulatory, bureaucratic and political slog of litigating federal policies. 

Former Wyodak coal mine manager Jack Clary of Gillette. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In a press release announcing the event, Gordon said the format would include time for questions from the public, adding “I look forward to the conversation.”

By the time Gordon opened the floor for questions, the audience was frustrated.

“I thought we were in a filibuster session,” Jack Clary told Gordon.

Clary, a former mine manager for the Wyodak coal mine east of town who is running for a seat on the Gillette City Council, later told WyoFile, “These people took off work to come here, and they didn’t get an opportunity to speak what they wanted to speak to the governor. We want answers. We’ve got to have answers.”

The state’s mandate to retrofit Wyoming coal power plants with carbon capture will unnecessarily inflate electricity rates for residents — a presumably pro-coal strategy that Clary, who also serves on the Campbell County Planning and Zoning board, said amounts to “smoke and mirrors.”

“I think we’ve got politicians,” Clary told WyoFile. “We don’t got statesmen. I think that’s what we need to get away from. I’m tired, and people are tired of the political rhetoric.”

Reached for comment after the event, Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman wrote in an email, “The governor answered questions either during the Q/A session or following.

“The panelists’ presentation,” Pearlman continued, “underscores the significant effort being undertaken to protect our state. Information shared provided reassurances to participants that Wyoming is in the fight — leading the way and joining forces to keep our livelihoods, protect our land, and fuel our nation.”

The audience, including Clary, was on board with the panel’s frequent condemnations of Biden administration energy, wildlife and land use policies that they said pose a threat to Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries. A remark from Lummis that the federal agencies enacting the policies ought to be “defunded” received a rousing applause, including from Gordon. 

Gov. Mark Gordon takes questions during a town hall event June 25, 2024, in Gillette as U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) looks on. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

But the crowd also applauded one local’s request that Gordon return to Gillette during evening hours when more people can take off work to pose questions and have a conversation with the governor. Gordon said afterward he’d schedule another event in Gillette in the evening.

Gordon’s energy strategy

Gordon organized the event to highlight his administration’s response to a barrage of new federal climate, wildlife and land-use policies, which include the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal pollution rules, the Bureau of Land Management’s sage grouse management amendments, its “methane rule,” conservation rule and a proposal to end federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin.

Those federal policies, if enacted, are likely to speed up coal’s declining pace of production and potentially stifle oil and natural gas extraction in the state, which would hit particularly hard in northeast Wyoming. Campbell County is the epicenter of the Powder River Basin coal industry, which is the nation’s largest supplier of coal and a stalwart of the region’s economy.

To steel Wyoming’s coal and other extractive industries from regulatory and market headwinds, Gordon has promoted a suite of “all-of-the-above” energy partnerships that he says advances technologies that can help preserve fossil fuels in a political environment that favors wind and solar energy.

Gov. Mark Gordon and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan held a joint press conference at the University of Wyoming on August 9, 2023. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

He’s also relying on the courts to fight against increasingly stringent federal regulations.

Since taking office in 2019, Gordon’s administration has initiated or taken part in at least 57 lawsuits either challenging federal “natural resources” policies or defending them in litigation brought against federal regulatory agencies by public health and conservation groups, according to a list of lawsuits his office provided to WyoFile. The litigation involves a dozen federal agencies, multiple states and at least 11 conservation groups. Most involve the EPA, BLM and the Interior Department that oversees the two agencies.

Gordon recently allocated $300,000 from the state’s $1.2 million “coal litigation fund” to mount a legal challenge to EPA’s coal pollution rules, and on Tuesday he announced an additional $800,000 allocation to block the BLM’s proposal to end federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin.

“This country has got to get its head out of its nether regions and figure out how we’re going to continue to be a great country, and that’s what Wyoming’s trying to do,” Gordon said. “The future has got to include coal, and we need investors to understand that it’s actually cheaper to be able to build more coal than it is to rely on what I think [National Mining Association Director of Government and Political Affairs Director James Young] referred to as fairy dust.”

A crowd of about 300 attended Gov. Mark Gordon’s town hall meeting in Gillette on June 25, 2024. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Young, of the National Mining Association, a panelist at the event, referenced “fairy dust” to describe the EPA’s mandate to capture 90% of coal power plant carbon dioxide emissions, adding the technology would be viable if the industry is given more time. He also touted Gordon’s efforts as particularly effective in the fight to preserve the coal industry.

“I think you guys should just stand up and applaud every one of these [panelists],” Young told the crowd.

The crowd did not stand, but gave a lukewarm applause.

Frustration in coal country

The town hall was organized amid criticism against Gordon from the far-right Wyoming Freedom Caucus of state lawmakers, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) and Rep. Christopher Knapp (R-Gillette). The group first took aim at Gordon for taking part in a discussion at Harvard University in October in which he talked about the need to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, insisting that fossil fuels can play a role in commercializing industrial carbon capture technologies. 

The governor’s remarks, however, didn’t sit well with members of the Freedom Caucus, many of whom deny the fact of human-caused climate change. Gordon’s acknowledgment of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions only serves as ammunition for anti-fossil fuel policies, according to the group. Ramping up its criticism of Gordon for acknowledging climate change, the group invited the CO2 Coalition — which promotes the debunked notion that humans have not contributed to climate change — to the Capitol during the legislative session in February.

A coal train rolls out of Gillette. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The group’s latest criticism of Gordon is what some members describe as his “lethargic” response to the BLM’s revised Buffalo Field Office Resource Management Plan, in which the agency proposes to end federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin. The plan was released in May, and some Freedom Caucus members have said Gordon should have launched a lawsuit by now. But Gordon’s administration first must protest the BLM’s plan and wait for the agency’s final decision later this year in order to gain legal standing.

Gordon’s critics also chafe at Gordon’s veto of Senate File 13 earlier this year, which would have earmarked $75 million for the Legislature — and potentially Wyoming counties — to sue the BLM over resource management plans. In Gillette, Gordon reiterated his reasoning for the veto, explaining that not only is state litigation the purview of the executive branch, but it would be a legal disadvantage to have two entities represent the same client.

Gordon also declined a call by 26 legislators earlier this month to convene a special legislative session to revisit the SF 13 veto and craft a supplemental legal challenge to the BLM.

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.