As the cost of renewable energy keeps going down and the technology used to generate and store it improve, the fossil fuel industry, especially coal, is feeling the pinch as energy companies move away from using fossil fuels. Despite Trump’s electioneering promise to coal miners that he would revive the industry and bring back the mining jobs that were disappearing, he did not really do anything other than eliminate some clean air regulations.
The latest effort by Wyoming, one of the nation’s biggest coal mining states, is a measure of how desperate the situation is for the industry. It is telling other states, “Buy our coal or else!”
A new state law has created a $1.2m fund to be used by Wyoming’s governor to take legal action against other states that opt to power themselves with clean energy such as solar and wind, in order to meet targets to tackle the climate crisis, rather than burn Wyoming’s coal.
“We have seen a spike in states trying to block Wyoming’s access to consumer markets to advance their political agenda,” said Jeremy Haroldson, a Republican state legislator who introduced the new law.
Fellow Republicans previously proposed banning the closure of any coal plants in the state. Haroldson said phasing out coal would risk the sort of disastrous power blackouts suffered by Texas in February. “It is time we start truly caring about the future,” he said.
Legal experts have said the new strategy is on shaky ground.
While the US constitution’s commerce clause prevents one state from banning goods and services based upon their state of origin, there is nothing to prevent them banning certain things, such as coal, as long as the measure is not targeted at one specific state.
Environmentalists argue that lawmakers should be helping build alternate industries to compensate for the inevitable demise of coal, rather than prop up a sector increasingly viewed as polluting and outmoded.
“In many ways this legal fund sounds crazy, like a Flat Earth idea,” said Rob Godby, an expert in natural resources at the University of Wyoming. “But for people in Wyoming, there is no other industry. It’s not just people losing their livelihood but also their culture – people here were proud they kept the lights on across the US. It’s very difficult to go from the hero to the villain.”
Godby said lawmakers privately acknowledge that coal is in a steep decline that will force either cuts in services or wildly unpopular tax increases, but that fighting for the industry publicly has become a litmus test for the Republican-voting electorate.
“The lawsuits will fulfill that rhetoric because it will look like the state is pushing back against the leftists,” he said. “But it’s symbolic, the fight is over – even if you win a court case it’s a pyrrhic victory because no-one really wants the coal. The losses to the state are going to be so large that the rationale is to try to postpone that for as long as possible.”
What the state should be doing is helping coal miners and others who are dependent on the coal industry transition to other jobs. But Republican legislators don’t really care about workers. What these measures seem designed to do is to protect the interests of the owners of the mines and factories.