The difficulty of transitioning the United States from coal can be seen in Wyoming.
Despite evidence that demand for coal is declining and that renewable energy is becoming less expensive than fossil fuels, Wyoming officials are clinging to the past. Lawmakers recently approved a $1.2 million fund earmarked for suing other states that block coal imports and cause Wyoming coal-fired plants to shut down.
Washington is likely to witness the impact of the fund. Last year, Wyoming and Montana asked the U.S. Supreme Court to override the rejection of a coal export dock along the Columbia River. Millennium Bulk Terminals had sought a coal terminal in Longview, but state regulators denied necessary permits.
The Supreme Court has not decided whether to hear the case. Meanwhile, Millennium Bulk Terminals has filed for bankruptcy, likely killing the terminal project.
The frustration of Wyoming leaders is understandable; the state accounts for 40 percent of U.S. coal production, and mining is the state’s largest industry. Tax revenue from fossil fuels accounts for half the state’s budget.
But the threat of climate change demands that the United States quickly transition away from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy infrastructure that will provide jobs now and in the future.
The burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration writes: “Human activities have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, amplifying Earth’s natural greenhouse effect. . . . Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.”
Beyond the moral imperative of reducing carbon emissions, states should recognize the economic realties of coal extraction. Many power plants have eschewed coal in favor of natural gas — also a fossil fuel — and production from wind and solar power continues to increase. As the Associated Press reports: “Solar and wind power also are on the rise as coal’s share of the U.S. power market shrinks from about half in the early 2000s to less than 20 percent now.”
In March, the New York Times reported on one of the nation’s largest wind farms coming to Wyoming’s Carbon County. As a former county commissioner says: “You can stand at the tracks when the train is coming at you, or you can stand at the switch. I chose to stand at the switch.”
Despite archaic efforts by then-President Donald Trump to boost the coal industry, declines have continued. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the industry supported 50,900 jobs in 2016; by the end of 2020, that number was 44,100.
These facts have been much detailed and often repeated. But Wyoming’s quixotic quest to preserve the coal industry adds a new twist.
States have a right to sue other states, and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the barring of goods and services based on the state of origin. But that is different from regulating or prohibiting certain goods regardless of their origin, such as fossil fuels.
Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter, told the Associated Press: “Coal is on the way out. The sooner our elected leadership acknowledges that and starts looking for things the state can do to actually help us through the transition, the better.”
Washington and many other states recognized that long ago. But fully transitioning from coal will require a national effort.