Wyoming could gain the most from federal climate funding, but obstacles remain

Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, leading Republican voices on energy policy, have been among the foremost critics of the nation’s first comprehensive climate law.

Barrasso has called the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, the Democrats’ “reckless green spending spree,” while Lummis derided its “unrealistic measures to cut carbon emissions.”

But earlier this summer, Barrasso and Lummis co-hosted what they billed as a first-of-its-kind  “federal funding summit” to help train Wyoming communities and organizations to apply for the new funds available under bipartisan infrastructure legislation and the IRA’s unprecedented $370 billion federal investment in the clean energy transition.

In a press release announcing the four-day session, the senators acknowledged that they had opposed the bills, but said “both senators are committed to ensuring Wyoming communities and citizens have fair access to the programs their tax dollars are helping to fund.”

Wyoming, the nation’s top coal-producing state, second only to Texas as a net energy supplier, finds itself in a unique position under the incentives-driven climate policy that President Joe Biden succeeded in getting through Congress one year ago.

If the United States acts aggressively enough to meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement, Wyoming has the potential to reap more than $7 billion from the climate-related provisions of the IRA, according to an analysis by the think tank RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute.

That would work out to more than $12,000 per person in Wyoming — greater potential per capita benefits than any other state.

Wyoming could take advantage of numerous provisions in the law designed to assist fossil fuel-dependent communities while tapping into some of the best wind energy resources in the country, which roll off its mountain ranges and across its vast expanses of ranchland.

But there are obstacles to Wyoming making a rapid, federally funded transition from fossil fuel giant to national leader in carbon-free energy. The Barrasso-Lummis summit was meant to address one of those barriers — the rural state’s lack of capacity and experience in competing for big federal dollars. Other hurdles may be more difficult to overcome, including local resistance to renewable energy growth and the state’s deep commitment to coal, oil and gas — and the tax revenue they generate.

Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican who hosted the federal funding summit along with Barrasso and Lummis, has welcomed clean energy technologies as an addition to — not a replacement for — the state’s traditional energy sources. Fossil fuels are “a vital component of any effort to successfully address reasonable climate goals,” he said earlier this year.

Gordon’s office would not comment on RMI’s projection of the potential windfall for Wyoming in the IRA. “We find the methodology to be speculative and flawed, as there are many factors that will determine whether or not Wyoming may benefit from potential funding/incentives from the IRA,” said his spokeswoman, Ivy McGowan-Castleberry, in an email.

New opportunities in wind, nuclear and carbon capture

Most of Wyoming has a competitive advantage in attracting clean energy development projects and associated federal funding under the IRA. The Biden administration’s mapping delineates nearly all the state as within an “energy community” zone, either adjacent to a former coal-mining or power-plant site or reliant on fossil fuels for jobs and tax revenue.

Clean energy projects that locate in energy communities are eligible for a 10% bonus to the federal clean electricity investment tax credits, which cover 30% of project costs. Further bonuses are available for projects that include apprenticeship programs, rely on domestic content for raw materials and aid low-income communities.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) speaks to an audience before the antler auction begins at Elk Fest in Jackson May 20, 2023. (Natalie Behring/WyoFile)

RMI senior associate Ashna Aggarwal, who worked on the think tank’s state-by-state analysis on the potential impacts of the IRA, said more than half of the benefits that could flow to Wyoming are from the clean electricity investment tax credits. That analysis takes into account the state’s substantial wind energy resources as measured by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The laboratory projects that wind power capacity could expand five-fold by 2030 in Wyoming if the state takes full advantage of the incentives available in the IRA.

“Wyoming is really well-poised to take advantage of clean resources that they have in the state, like wind, and Wyoming is already taking action,” said Aggarwal.

She points to the 3,500-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project now under construction near Rawlins in southern Wyoming, set to be the largest wind farm in the United States. Once it begins operations in 2027, its power will flow to Nevada, Arizona and California via the 732-mile TransWest Express high-voltage transmission line, which is also under construction, after receiving final approval from the Biden administration earlier this year.

Another IRA provision that could be important to Wyoming is the new Energy Infrastructure Reinvestment Program, expected to roll out next year, offering support to projects that seek to “retool, repower, repurpose or replace” existing energy infrastructure. Unlike other federal clean electricity loan programs, the EIR program will not require projects to use innovative technology; they can be eligible as long as they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinvest in the affected community.

The idea of retooling legacy energy sites had taken hold already in Wyoming before the IRA’s passage, with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ company, TerraPower, selecting an old coal plant site in Kemmerer as the location for his liquid sodium-cooled Natrium advanced nuclear energy demonstration project. After the IRA’s passage, TerraPower and its partner, the utility PacifiCorp, announced that they would study deploying up to five additional commercial Natrium reactors and integrated energy storage systems, including the possibility of locating them near current fossil fuel sites.

And carbon capture, which Gordon and other Wyoming politicians have long seen as the hope for maintaining coal’s future in the state, also could get a boost from the IRA. Utilities have viewed the technology as too expensive, but the IRA could ease the costs by greatly increasing the value of the tax credits available for carbon capture and utilization (for enhanced oil recovery, for example) or sequestration. A test case could be the direct air capture carbon removal project, Project Bison, announced after passage of the IRA and being constructed in Rock Springs near a coal plant that is currently switching over to natural gas. Meanwhile, the University of Wyoming has been tapped to receive the largest of nine federal grants to develop carbon storage hubs across the country.

Nathan Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, a non-partisan think tank focused on engaging energy communities in the clean energy transition, said he sees great interest across the state in the new opportunities offered by the IRA.

“We might have some of the best energy workers in the world and a lot of the necessary energy infrastructure,” Wendt said. “Wyoming wants to continue to remain a leader in energy production. And I think that they see the great opportunity to do so by, you know, chasing as aggressively as they can the clean energy opportunities that are really now turbocharged because of the inflation Reduction Act.”

A loaded coal train rolls through Gillette in March 2020. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Community concerns about wind power, harm to ecosystems

But there have been obstacles to the clean energy build-out in Wyoming, as is clear from the fact that the state is not now among the top 10 wind energy producers, despite the extraordinary resources that whip across its landscape as air flows from higher to lower elevations.

Because Wyoming — the nation’s least populous state — produces nearly 12 times more energy than it consumes, any new energy generation projects have to be able to move power outside the state to population centers. And because the state is located on the eastern end of the nation’s western electric grid, that means putting transmission lines over hundreds of miles of federal land to Western population centers. It took 18 years for the TransWest Express line, which is crucial to the viability of the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project, to get all of the needed approvals before the groundbreaking this year. The debt ceiling legislation Congress passed this summer included new deadlines for environmental reviews of such projects; it remains to be seen whether they will substantially speed the permitting process.

Some clean energy projects have faced opposition in Wyoming, including a 504-megawatt wind project near Laramie where local landowners waged a years-long fight before their defeat before the state Supreme Court earlier this year.

“People really like the long views we have in Wyoming,” said Jonathan Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming. “It’s big sky country and you can see the horizon, so you can see turbines that are 50 miles away.”

At the same time, Naughton said, local economies see benefits from wind development, with landowners earning substantial royalties for turbines located on their properties. That’s revenue that allows them to weather ups and downs in the agricultural markets, and avoid subdividing and selling off their land. “Part of the agricultural community really embraces wind energy because it allows them to keep those big ranches intact,” he said.

Another issue on which there is continuing scientific study and debate is how to accelerate the build-out of wind energy while protecting the fragile sagebrush ecosystem of Wyoming, and the species that rely on it, including the iconic sage grouse.

“I think people look at Wyoming from the outside, and they’re like, ‘Oh, small population, lots of land, lots of space, the perfect place to put the large-scale renewable energy build-out that our country, frankly, needs,” said Monika Leininger, director of external affairs and climate policy at The Nature Conservancy. “What I don’t think people always understand is the sensitivity of the landscapes we have.”

The Nature Conservancy has an initiative to encourage siting renewable energy on the previously disturbed land in Wyoming — often, former fossil fuel sites — to avoid breaking new ground.

“We think there is enough room for wind and solar and wildlife and our landscapes to thrive,” she said. “I think it’s going to depend on how well utilities can work together to plan and utilize existing rights-of-way for transmission and think about the best way to share resources.”

No income taxes, but lots of fossil fuel revenue

But Wyoming’s Republican leaders do not talk about clean energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. With no state income tax, Wyoming is heavily dependent on severance taxes and other fossil fuel revenue to fund its state government.

Wyoming does levy an excise tax on wind energy production in the state, but it does not begin to approach the revenue generated by coal, oil and natural gas. A study last year by University of Wyoming researchers estimated that with aggressive growth of wind energy in the state, wind production tax revenues could increase to $89 million per year. But Wyoming currently expects to bring in $744.3 million in mineral severance tax revenue over its two-year 2023-2024 budget period. With another $597 million expected in federal mineral royalties, fossil fuel revenue will make up about 40% of Wyoming’s expected $3.5 billion in revenue.

Although the state Legislature has repeatedly considered raising the wind energy tax, lawmakers concluded that such a hike would cause Wyoming to lose wind development to other states.

Wyoming doesn’t have a renewable energy portfolio standard, the kind of policy that has driven an increase in wind and solar development in other states. And the state puts limits on net metering — payments to rooftop solar owners for the excess power they sell back to the grid — in a way that could hinder the kind of community solar projects supported by the IRA.

But Rob Joyce, organizer for Sierra Club in Wyoming, said there are positive signs, including indications that Wyoming will apply for a climate pollution reduction grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that the state is pursuing energy efficiency rebate programs. Such small steps alone show the state has come a long way.

“It’s been a little bit tenuous to have these conversations — even the idea of taking federal money is an issue in some parts of our state, and certainly at our state legislature,” Joyce said. “But I think the majority of people in Wyoming, even the people who are in those positions of power, recognize the opportunity here. We’re maybe not moving as quickly as we would like to, but we’re certainly not at a standstill here.”

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for their newsletter here.

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‘This changes everything’: Experts respond to Held v. Montana climate ruling

This article is part of a series on the youth-led constitutional climate change lawsuit Held v. Montana. The rest of the series can be read at mtclimatecase.flatheadbeacon.com. This project is produced by the Flathead Beacon newsroom, in collaboration with Montana Free Press, and is supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship.

This story also appeared in Flathead Beacon

On Monday morning, when a Montana judge issued a ruling favoring young environmental advocates in the constitutional climate change lawsuit Held v. Montana, Lander Busse, one of the 16 youth plaintiffs, was in a raft on the Flathead River.

When told by his father that the decision favored the plaintiffs, Lander said, “Hell yes, we won, and I am going fishing,” before floating out of cell service, according to his father’s telling of the exchange.

As Busse, 18, drifted out of reach of reporters, the response to the landmark decision rippled across the globe, and in its wake a torrent of analysis has poured in from legal observers, scientific experts, environmental advocates, policymakers and industry stakeholders, all trying to paint a picture of Montana’s future through the legal lens of the verdict, as well as its long-term policy implications.

Held v. Montana made history as the first youth-led constitutional climate change lawsuit to go to trial, with a seven-day trial unfolding in a Helena district courtroom in June.

The lawsuit alleged the state had violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment,” and focused on a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) that prohibits state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts while conducting environmental reviews.

The ruling by Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Kathy Seeley is the first legal opinion of its kind, spelling out the environmental harms caused by greenhouse gas emissions as well as the effects of climate change on the physical and mental well-being of young people.

Michael Gerrard, the founder of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said he was “smiling ear to ear” when he read the Aug. 14 decision, which he characterized as the “strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court.”

“The court resoundingly affirmed what the climate scientists are saying, and it will become ever harder to attack basic climate science in the court, where facts matter,” Gerrard said.

The 103-page Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order draws a correlation between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and tangible changes to the environment, and it appraises Montana’s contribution to the broader consequences of climate change.

“Montana’s GHG contributions are not de minimis but are nationally and globally significant. Montana’s GHG emissions cause and contribute to climate change and Plaintiffs’ injuries and reduce the opportunity to alleviate Plaintiffs’ injuries,” according to language in the ruling that zeroes in on one of the state’s foundational arguments.

Stanford University Atmosphere/Energy Director Mark Jacobson testifies during the Held v. Montana trial, with Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley in the background. Credit: Amanda Eggert

Six states and roughly 150 countries have codified the right to a clean environment in their constitutions, similar to the Montana provision the case was predicated on, and legal experts say the Held ruling may come into play in those jurisdictions.

“There’s a lot of excitement about Montana playing an early role in developing new legal approaches to this problem,” said Michelle Bryan, a University of Montana law professor who specializes in natural resource and environmental law. “All these other cases we see now are potentially going to trial, and this decision, and whatever comes out on appeal, will be read by judges all over. Even though they’re not bound by this precedent, they’ll be influenced by what Judge Seeley and the Montana Supreme Court had to say.”

Emily Flower, a spokesperson for the Montana attorney general’s office, said the state will appeal the ruling. In a statement, Flower characterized the ruling as “absurd” and called Seeley an “ideological judge.”

Speculating about what the Montana Supreme Court might do on appeal, retired Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson called the case a “slam dunk home run” and said he expects the state’s high court will have a difficult time overturning the decision.

“I think this is one of the most powerful decisions I’ve ever read on the environment in Montana,” said Nelson, who sat on the state Supreme Court for nearly two decades.

Nelson said the decision’s biggest implication is the court’s finding that climate change is covered by Article II, Section 3 of the Montana Constitution, the right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

“That’s important. One could think it’s common sense to make that connection, but the court has never said that,” Nelson said. “She also found that the state and Legislature have violated their mandatory duties under Article IX, Section 1 to maintain and improve the environment for this and future generations. That’s going to come out in other environmental cases that go before the court.”

“I think this is one of the most powerful decisions I’ve ever read on the environment in Montana.”

Retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson

Gerrard and Bryan both highlighted the extent to which Seeley’s ruling focused on the source of climate change and the individual harm reported by the plaintiffs — a section spanning roughly 50 pages — and the state’s role in furthering both.

Bryan said future questions will revolve around whether an agency review of greenhouse gas emissions adequately meets the constitutional provision for a clean and healthful environment. “The court’s saying that the climate isn’t an issue you can skip during an environmental review — our Constitution requires you to consider it,” she said.

The ruling also suggests that part of an environmental review is considering alternative actions and projects, which in the energy arena could mean considering alternatives to carbon-based fuels.

Bryan said the impetus is now on state regulatory agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) tasked with permitting major energy projects to implement changes in Montana.

“The most important part of the ruling is that the government bodies like the DNRC, DEQ and [Montana Department of Transportation] will have to figure out the best way to consider greenhouse gas emissions, which is something other states, and the federal government, are grappling with,” Bryan said. “A lot of work is left to do in terms of figuring out how to implement greenhouse gas reviews into the agency processes.”

In her verdict, Seeley wrote that it is possible to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions that result from fossil fuel extraction, processing, transportation and consumption activities authorized by state agencies. She cited permitting decisions prior to 2011 when agencies quantified and disclosed such emissions. The ruling, however, does not instruct the state on how to quantify emissions, or where the line should be drawn to decline a new permit.

Anne Hedges, co-director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, characterized the ruling as both far-reaching and unprecedented during a Public Service Commission meeting on Aug. 15. Hedges, who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs and has tracked energy policy in Montana for three decades, said that’s largely due to the decision’s implications for the energy permitting process.

“This changes everything,” she said. “The court ruled that the state must be able to deny fossil fuel projects — something the state has never done before.”

“The state must either have discretion to deny permits for fossil fuel activities when the activities would result in greenhouse gas emissions that cause unconstitutional degradation and depletion of Montana’s environment and natural resources, or the permitting statutes themselves must be unconstitutional,” Hedges said, pulling language directly from the ruling.

In addition to finding that cataloging greenhouse gas emissions is technically feasible, Seeley wrote that a transition to renewable energy is “economically feasible and technologically available to employ in Montana.” She added that there is a roadmap for a transition to such energy sources available that will “create jobs, reduce air pollution, and save lives and costs associated with air pollution” in addition to garnering climate benefits.

During the trial, Stanford University Atmosphere/Energy Director Mark Jacobson said Montana has “incredible” renewable energy potential, particularly in regard to wind generation. Jacobson said his modeling demonstrates that the state could easily meet its energy needs and keep the grid stable by pairing existing hydropower generation with expanded wind and solar power, backed up with battery storage.

Seeley also cited Jacobson’s calculation that wind and solar cost about half what a new natural gas project does, and are “even cheaper compared to coal” in her order.

Entities representing or heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry expressed dismay with the decision and emphasized the uncertainties it raises, while Montana-based renewable energy advocates said it will accelerate a transition that’s already underway.

Montana Petroleum Association Executive Director Alan Olson said the ruling amounts to job security for lawyers and will prove difficult to implement, given the technical challenges associated with emissions accounting. Olson also said he fears an abrupt transition to renewables would be expensive for ratepayers when electricity demand surges and would shrink the tax and philanthropic footprints of companies like Signal Peak Energy, which owns a coal mine in Musselshell County that employs about 280 people.

Olson added that whatever regulatory shifts are coming, they won’t happen overnight. “It’s going to be a long process to conform with this,” Olson said. “You’re going to need statutory changes, you’re going to need rule changes.”

Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican lawmaker from Great Falls who urged his colleagues in the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 971, a measure barring the state from considering greenhouse gas impacts in environmental reviews that Seeley struck down in her ruling, echoed that sentiment. Between the state’s appeal and the Legislature’s input in future legislative sessions, “it’s too early to say what kind of impact this case is going to have,” he said.

“In my opinion, all [Seeley] has really done is given the Legislature an invitation to come in and redraft MEPA with respect to greenhouse gas impacts or out-of-state impacts,” he said, adding that in his estimation Seeley’s order gave the plaintiffs “20%” of what they wanted.

A requirement to analyze greenhouse gas emissions might make that process “longer and more cumbersome and more expensive,” but it doesn’t amount to a wholesale prohibition on new coal mines or gas plants, he argued.

“In my opinion, all [Judge Seeley] has really done is given the Legislature an invitation to come in and redraft MEPA with respect to greenhouse gas impacts or out-of-state impacts.”

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls

Makenna Sellers, executive director for the Montana Renewable Energy Association, said in an email that the Held ruling could make carbon-free projects more attractive in Montana, and described her industry’s contribution as “part and parcel to Montanans’ constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.”

Bruce Spencer, who lobbies on behalf of large wind and solar developers for the Montana Energy Business Alliance, said he anticipates clean energy will continue expanding in Montana so long as the regulatory climate remains stable for would-be investors.

“MEBA is just hopeful that Montana’s business conditions will continue to permit renewable energy development as part of Montana’s energy portfolio,” he added.

Despite vast coal reserves — more than any other state in the country — the state is trending more and more toward renewables, according to a 2023 report released by DEQ. “Development of new in-state generation is being led by wind resources, natural gas, solar assets and, increasingly, large-scale batteries.” The agency’s analysis found that wind-generated capacity has doubled in the past decade and is close to equaling coal-fired capacity in the state.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, speaks during a Senate floor session on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Bryan, the University of Montana law professor, found irony in the decision being handed down at a time when Montana is facing multiple wildfire outbreaks, extreme heat, record low streamflows and drought conditions — all environmental impacts that scientists tied to climate change during the trial.

“It just underscores the problem that stimulated the trial: We’re going in the wrong direction,” said Jack Stanford, the former director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. “Everyone who depends on water and Montana’s rivers is going to feel the effects of this climate warming and the loss of flow and volume in our streams and rivers.”

“I think we’re just pleased that the trial went our way and hope that Montana’s government steps up to the plate and takes a few swings in favor of the environment instead of fossil fuel development,” Stanford said.

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