Bill creating legal defense fund for coal passes first Senate hurdle


CASPER — A proposal to set aside over a million dollars in funding for Wyoming to sue other states divesting from coal cleared an initial vote in the Senate on Monday afternoon.

House Bill 207 would earmark $1.2 million for Wyoming’s governor and attorney general to challenge actions taken by other states that “impede the export of Wyoming coal or the continued operation of Wyoming’s coal-fired electric generation facilities, including early retirements of those facilities,” according to the bill draft.

Wyoming is the country’s top producer of thermal coal used to make electricity. But utilities have started turning to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources in place of coal to save ratepayers money. Recently, in a span of less than three months, two Powder River Basin coal mines announced plans to close due to worsening market conditions. Coal production in last year’s final quarter dropped by over one-fifth across the basin.

Meanwhile, several states have instituted goals to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change, primarily through the investment in renewable energy.

The coal litigation bill passed the House on March 22 in a 53-7 vote. It came before the full Senate for an initial vote on Monday and passed after considerable debate.

An amendment to restore the original level of appropriated funding to $1.2 million passed committee of the whole.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, explained earlier this month to a House committee why he proposed the measure: “Why is this important? Because if we don’t start fighting back, we will be dictated by not only the federal government but other states as to where we can move and where we can go and power generation in our state.”

Several members of the Senate agreed.

“Why is it important for Wyoming to work for our coal-fired generation? No. 1, we generate revenue off of severance taxes that pay for our local jobs and economy,” Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said Monday. “No. 2 it creates significant jobs at power plants. It’s about severance taxes, funding schools and providing local jobs.”

But a contingent of lawmakers expressed skepticism over dedicating additional funding to lawyers and other legal fees when the state faces a structural revenue decline.

“I’m not so sure it’s a wise expenditure of our money right now,” Senate Minority Whip Mike Gierau said. “We seem to be in a mode where we’re looking at all our expenses and cutting, but here we seem to just take carte blanche and put caution to the wind.”

Wyoming is already wrapped up in a lawsuit against the state of Washington over a coal export terminal. Wyoming’s attorney general filed the original action in the U.S. Supreme Court over a year ago.

The lawsuit alleges Washington unconstitutionally stopped the development of a proposed coal port, and inhibited the landlocked states from shipping their coal to global markets.

Wyoming, joined by Montana, argued the state of Washington violated the commerce clause and foreign commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by inhibiting the export of a commodity.

But the Trump administration left office before weighing in on the lawsuit, dimming the state’s hope to have the case heard by the Supreme Court. What’s more, the owner of the coal port, Lighthouse Resources, also filed for bankruptcy in December and has been unable to find a new buyer for the terminal project.

The latest coal bill debated on the Senate floor on Monday will need to pass two more reads before going to the governor’s desk.