Wyoming is threatening to sue Colorado.
The reason: Colorado has passed laws that accelerate the deployment of renewable energy and the retirement of coal plants.
Wyoming — the nation’s largest coal producer, despite all of West Virginia’s coal heritage — doesn’t like that because it says that hurts The Cowboy State’s economy.
That’s an interesting legal theory and a poor use of Wyoming’s tax dollars.
Yes, Colorado might be taking actions to accelerate coal’s decline, but coal jobs would be declining anyway, just not as quickly.
Wyoming would be better off figuring out how to adjust to new, and inevitable, economic realities.
After all, Colorado is. We may think of Colorado is a land of hippies smoking marijuana but we forget that Colorado is also a coal-producing state, as well.
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In fact, in 2020 Colorado mined slightly more coal than Virginia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That makes our look at the Wyoming-Colorado conflict particularly relevant, more because of what Colorado has done than what Wyoming might or might not do.
Colorado and Virginia have done almost the same thing. The Colorado legislature in 2019 set a goal to make the state’s electric grid 100% carbon-free by 2040.
The Virginia General Assembly last year passed its Clean Economy Act that mandates the state’s two biggest utilities — Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power — go carbon-free by 2045 and 2050, respectively.
Colorado, though, has done something that Virginia did not do. It established a state office in charge of helping the state’s coal counties build a new economy. Virginia did not.
This is a point we’ve raised before but will continue to hammer home until politicians in the state’s urban crescent pay attention.
Virginia’s law contains some vague and high-sounding language about how starting in 2022 the state each year “shall determine whether implementation of this act imposes a disproportionate burden on historically economically disadvantaged communities.” Well, of course it will. You don’t need a study to figure that out. There’s just not much in the act to do anything about it.
Colorado, by contrast, sets up an Office of Just Transition.
Now, we’re not so naïve as to believe that a government office equates to actual action. But it’s something, and something beats nothing, and nothing is what Virginia has done.
It’s too soon to say whether Colorado’s Office of Just Transition — yes, that’s a cringe-worthy phrase — will help create a new economy in Colorado’s coal counties.
It was set up in 2019 and in late 2020 issued an “action plan.” We’ve read it. It’s full of aspirational language — i.e., “attract grants and investments to power local economic growth” and “develop strategies to attract new businesses to transition communities …”
Well, yes, all those sound like nice things. But that’s not exactly the same as “we’re going to spend X dollars on Y project that we think will create Z jobs.” Maybe that will come. In any case, our point here isn’t to nitpick Colorado but to ask why Virginia isn’t making a formal commitment to its coal counties the way Colorado has to its coal counties?
. . .
No, seriously, we’ll wait …
. . .
All right, guess we’re not going to get an answer on that today. So let’s move on to the next logical question.
Just because Virginia didn’t do this as part of the Clean Economy Act doesn’t mean it can’t do it now. We’re less focused on a government office than the official recognition that something should be done — and then the follow-up through on actually doing something. Colorado has at least done the former. Virginia hasn’t done either.
There have been some sporadic efforts. State Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, sponsored the Senate version of the bill to retire coal tax credits — but also sponsored the measure to award $500,000 to the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority for broadband internet.
That’s not an even trade but it’s better than nothing. Gov. Ralph Northam tried to get the legislature to pass some language declaring its’ “intent” to direct future savings from the coal tax credit retirement to expanding tech-oriented classes at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
The legislature reacted poorly to that suggestion. Republicans didn’t like it because they considered it too weak; one legislature can’t bind a future one.
Some Democrats didn’t like it because they considered it too strong; they worried they might create some expectations. (Horrors!)
Still, we have to wonder: If Virginia is going to follow Colorado’s lead in legalizing marijuana, why can’t it follow Colorado’s lead in making a formal commitment to its coal counties?
For now, all we have out of Colorado is rhetoric, but at least it’s the right rhetoric. Consider this statement from K.C. Becker, who as Colorado’s Speaker of the House introduced the bill creating that Office of Just Transition: “The time to take action on climate is now, but we cannot work toward a clean-energy economy without also working on solutions to support workers who are affected by this transition. Workers and communities whose livelihoods are threatened by shifting economic tides and advancements in technology need support.”
Now here’s the thing: Becker didn’t represent any of the coal counties. She was a Democrat from Boulder. That’s literally the most liberal county in the state; Joe Biden took 77.2% of the vote there. That makes it not much different from, say, Virginia’s Fairfax County, which is notable because that’s the home of our Speaker of the House, Eileen Filler-Corn. We haven’t seen her looking out for coal counties the way Colorado’s Democratic speaker did. Boulder is also home to the University of Colorado, which makes it not much different from our own Charlottesville. That’s notable because it was Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who sponsored the House version of the coal tax credit retirement. We sure haven’t seen her speaking up for Virginia’s coal counties. Yes, she proposed a study in return, but a study — with no promise of funding for whatever it concludes — pales in comparison to Colorado’s more formal (if yet unrealized) commitment to “ensure that the clean energy economy fulfills a moral commitment to assist the workers and communities that have powered Colorado for generations.” (That’s the actual language of the Colorado law, by the way.) A moral commitment.
So we ask yet again: What does Virginia owe its coal counties for helping put their main industry out of business?
Tomorrow we’ll look at the federal response.