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Bill to keep fossil fuel plants open approved by committee

By Camille Erickson
Casper Star-Tribune
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — A bill to prevent Wyoming fossil fuel plant closures cleared a legislative committee on Wednesday, despite opposition from the public, consumer advocates and several utility companies.

House Bill 166 would prohibit the early retirement of coal or natural gas power plant units, unless a utility company takes additional steps to prove ceasing operations would not hurt customers or compromise reliability.

In other words, the drafted legislation would create a presumption against coal and natural gas plant retirements. State regulators could not give an OK on a proposed plant closure unless the owner presented a certain amount of evidence demonstrating the efficacy of the closure.

Sponsors of House Bill 166 include Reps. Steve Harshman, R-Casper; Eric Barlow, R-Gillette; Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins; Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne; and Evan Simpson, R-Afton.

Sens. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, and Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, also joined as sponsors on the bill.

House Bill 166 wasn’t the only piece of coal legislation to capture the spotlight at the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee meeting on Wednesday morning.

A package of four bills, all aimed at buoying Wyoming’s coal industry, were systematically opposed during roughly two hours of public testimony.

Chairman Mike Greear, R-Worland, held back three of the bills. But he kept an amended House Bill 166 alive.

“This bill has been identified as probably the least offensive,” Greear said of House Bill 166.

In nearly all comments provided to lawmakers on Monday and Wednesday, the public conveyed concern over the coal bills. Many said the legislation as written would increase electricity rates for customers, while doing very little to further the intent of the bills: to save Wyoming’s bedrock industry or bolster grid reliability.

The majority urged lawmakers to proceed with caution.

“There are some challenges associated with the bills, and I think that we need to think through them carefully,” said Bryce Freeman, an administrator with the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate.

Wyoming Industrial Energy Consumers opposed the bills. The group represents industrial companies, including some of the largest electricity consumers in the state.

“We’re almost positive that if you do pass these bills in their current form, rates will increase, possibly dramatically,” said Thor Nelson, who represents industrial consumers.

The trona industry said the possibility that the new legislation would increase rates was “an extreme concern.”

“We prefer this would be thoroughly vetted over the interim,” trona lobbyist Jody Levin said. “Please think about what this could do to ratepayers.”

Others noted the state’s utility regulators at the Public Service Commission already had the mandate to ensure electricity stayed as low cost and as reliable as possible, suggesting that the bills would be duplicative.

“Really the goal of the Public Service Commission is to balance reliability, affordability and costs,” said Denise Parrish, a former staff member of the Office of Consumer Advocate. “These bills, I believe provide incentive to increase costs to customers, and may or may not have any impact on reliability.”

Two Wyomingites lamented that the Legislature had chosen to focus its attention on saving uneconomic coal plants or manipulating markets far out of Wyoming’s control, instead of helping communities adapt.

“I don’t understand the viability or how these bills are going to work,” said Lynne Huskinson, a retired coal miner living in Gillette. “I guess my concern is that this is a little too late. The Legislature would serve the people of Wyoming better by writing bills that address the energy transition, a just transition.”

In recent years, Wyoming lawmakers have ramped up their efforts to give coal the upper hand in electricity markets.

Wyoming is the nation’s leading producer of thermal coal, but the state exports a vast majority.

Natural gas and renewable energy, however, have become more and more competitive in electricity markets, making coal less economical for utilities to continue investing in.

Nonetheless, in 2019, Wyoming’s Legislature passed a bill that forces utilities to try to find a new owner for a coal unit before retiring it. Another bill, known as House Bill 200, gave state regulators the authority to set low-carbon electricity generation standards for utilities and effectively incentivize investment in coal.

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