GUEST OPINION: Curbing dirty energy

By on August 11, 2015

State officials must blaze a new path to protect Wyoming’s other resources

This piece is part two in a two-part series (the first part – “Fueling the Future” – ran on July 28) leading up to a public meeting co-hosted by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Gov. Matt Mead’s Office regarding the development of Wyoming’s next energy strategy. This meeting is 5:30 to 7 p.m., Aug. 13 in the Ordway Auditorium at Teton County Library. To review Wyoming’s current energy strategy visit Energy.Wyo.gov.

“Daddy, is winter over?” my daughter Piper asked in early February. With temperatures spiking into the mid-50s, snow melting across the valley, and Yellowstone grizzlies already emerging from their dens, it sure seemed like winter had indeed ended months ahead of schedule.

While we suffered through a warm winter, at least we had some snow to enjoy. This year, however, winter simply never showed up on the West Coast. Ski areas in Washington, Oregon, and California had one of their worst seasons in recorded history, with many never opening at all due to a lack of snow, which devastated the local economies in dozens of communities. Unfortunately, this missing winter was not an anomaly, but the continuation of a long-term trend that’s getting worse.

At the same time, Wyoming has experienced moderate to severe drought conditions for the past 15 years, putting extreme strain on thousands of ranchers and farmers across the Cowboy State – with many ranchers forced to sell their cattle. Without rain, “There is not much you can do but pray,” explained Dennis Sun, a lifelong rancher and publisher of Wyoming Livestock Roundup, an industry publication.

Meanwhile, this summer we’ve seen the first ever forest fire in the rainforests of Washington’s Olympic National Park, temperatures reaching an all-time record 98 degrees in London, California suffering through its worst drought in a millennium, and record-heat waves in Pakistan and India killing more than 1,000 people.

Less snow and more rain in the Tetons, persistent and worsening drought across Wyoming, and strange and increasingly severe weather across the globe are all predicted impacts and a consequence of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

We have a moral obligation to our children to protect them – that means preparing for and tackling climate change now. This means breaking our addiction to fossil fuels. Yet right now, our state has an energy strategy that doesn’t even mention climate change and doubles down on a dying industry.

More than 40 U.S. coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past few years, including industry giant Alpha Natural Resources. With countries around the world turning away from coal in attempts to reduce air pollution, low prices for natural gas and increasing competition from renewable energy sources, it’s no wonder the private sector has abandoned “King Coal” and stock prices of coal companies are cratering. The market doesn’t like betting on losers.

Instead of seeing the writing on the wall, Wyoming has embraced full-on socialism for the coal industry. This legislative session the state Legislature granted the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority $1 billion in bonding authority to pursue coal ports in other states.

You can’t make this stuff up. The state’s energy strategy that proudly declares, “Government should not dictate energy production levels by favoring one type of energy production over another or by influencing private, market-based actions.” However, elected representatives have committed $1 billion in bonding authority, backed up by financial resources of the state government (meaning you, me, and every other Wyomingite bears nearly $2,000 in financial risk). That’s specifically to build coal export facilities in other states (where they’re not even wanted) that the private sector itself won’t fund because they’re way too risky.

What’s behind Wyoming’s rigged system of corporate welfare for coal and deliberate denial of climate change? Well, tax revenues from coal and other fossil fuels pay for approximately 70 percent of operating state government, as bluntly explained by State Rep. Thomas Lubnau through his opposition to a sculpture installed at the University of Wyoming in 2011 depicting a link between human-caused climate change and dead forests.

“While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I’m a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from,” he said, referring to taxes collected from coal and other energy industries.

Here’s the thing, fossil fuel companies do more than pay most of our state’s bills in Wyoming, they are also the largest contributor to political campaigns, by far. In 2014 the overwhelming majority of political contributions to candidates running for statewide office were from fossil fuel companies or entities directly involved with the fossil fuel industry. Exacerbating the problem, fossil fuel companies are also bankrolling a deceptive, coordinated, and well-funded campaign to mislead Americans on climate science. This is the same strategy – using some of the exact same people – the tobacco companies used to hide the truth about the risks of smoking.

We need to break their stranglehold on our democracy and put the people of Wyoming, not fossil fuel companies, back in charge. It’s time to take charge of Wyoming’s energy future and break our addiction to fossil fuels through clean energy investments in our communities.

Imagine if instead of gambling $1 billion on corporate welfare to prop up a dying industry, we made a down payment toward blazing a trail toward the clean energy economy of the future. Consider how Wyoming could transition to using 100 percent clean and renewable energy for all purposes (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling and industry) by 2050 through investments like wind turbines on ranches, solar panels on roofs, and efficiency improvements in buildings, according to data from Stanford University. Think about how investments in locally distributed renewable energy and energy efficiency would create 23,000 good-paying jobs and save every Wyomingite more than $1,000 in energy costs every year while building stronger communities and a more stable climate.

Through clean energy investments in our communities Wyoming can take charge of our energy future, provide our citizens with energy security, make our energy even more affordable, protect our environment and our climate, and drive our state’s economy forward into the future.

It’s time Wyoming stopped clinging desperately to the dirty energy economy of the past and started leading the charge toward the clean energy economy of the future. Let’s use our innovation and ingenuity to show America how to produce clean and renewable energy, create new jobs and leave a positive legacy for the next generation of Wyomingites.  PJH

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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