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Lawmakers In Some States Are Stepping In, Trying To Slow The Shift Away From Coal


Despite the Trump administration's efforts to promote coal, utilities have shifted away from it at near record rates over the past year. The trend may only grow as more states push for clean energy. Now lawmakers in some coal states are stepping in. They're trying to slow down the shift. Cooper McKim of Wyoming Public Radio reports.

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: One day last November at 3:30 in the morning, Wyoming State Senator Ogden Driskill got a call from a fellow lawmaker. Driskill says the man was panicked to find out a coal-fired power plant in his community might be shutting down earlier than expected.

OGDEN DRISKILL: We built schools, and our towns built roads for them. And we built those on the promise that these plants were going to last somewhere near X point in their life. And now we're being told, look; we're going to renege on that promise.

MCKIM: Driskill is talking about PacifiCorp, a utility that provides electricity across the West. It announced last year that retiring most of its coal units early would save money due to cheaper prices from natural gas and renewables. That would be a financial blow for a state like Wyoming where coal is a top source of revenue. So Driskill helped put together a bill to keep those plants online a little longer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Senate file 159 - new opportunities for...

MCKIM: The legislation would compel utilities to make a good faith effort to sell a plant before retiring it or shifting it to, say, natural gas.

DRISKILL: What this bill really does is says, look; before you decommission them, give someone else a chance to run them as you give them a chance to buy them.

MCKIM: Driskill admits the odds of it working are slim, but Wyoming's governor signed the bill into law. In 2018, utilities shifted away from coal at double the rate of the previous year. The trend is expected to continue. Other states are also trying to slow down this transition. In West Virginia, lawmakers have passed a bill to ease the tax burden on coal companies. In Montana, a bill seeks to keep one particular coal plant online. It provides a major incentive for the utility to generate more coal-fired power.

TOM RICHMOND: It's not just a symbol. It also has a practical implication as we would like to have more baseload power on our grid.

MCKIM: State Senator Tom Richmond says baseload power is continuous power, unlike wind and solar, which only works sometimes. Richmond says states committed to a hundred percent green energy could have problems.

RICHMOND: I think they're the ones that are going to have the rolling brownouts and the blackouts from time to time because I don't think you can run a grid a hundred percent on intermittent power.

MCKIM: But energy analysts say it's not clear coal is the answer to that problem.

ROB GODBY: The legislators dealt with the easy response, right?

MCKIM: Rob Godby is an energy economist at the University of Wyoming.

GODBY: Build a speed bump. See if you can slow down the utility company. But that's all you're doing - is just buying time.

MCKIM: He says it makes sense to see all this pushback. Unlike some energy-producing states, Wyoming and Montana don't have other major industries to absorb unemployed coal workers.

GODBY: We reacted in a much different way. And we probably were not as willing to accept what everybody else has realized, which is there's a change going on - been just slower to adapt.

MCKIM: Godby says sooner or later, these states will have to consider other approaches like New Mexico recently did. A major coal plant there is expected to close down, so the legislature approved a fund to help displaced workers transition into new careers. For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim in Laramie, Wyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ORB'S "EDELGRUEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and now Wyoming. In South Carolina, he covered recovery efforts from a devastating flood in 2015. Throughout his time, he produced breaking news segments and short features for national NPR. Cooper recently graduated from Tufts University with degrees in Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.