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By Richard Garrett, Jr.

A MAJOR UTILITY COMPANY TOOK A LOT OF PEOPLE BY SURPRISE on Tuesday when one of its representatives encouraged Wyoming to take the lead in regulating and permitting greenhouse gas emissions.

In a presentation in Jackson to the Wyoming legislature’s joint interim Minerals, Business and Economic Development committee, Cathy Woollums, senior vice president and chief environmental counsel for MidAmerican Energy (the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power) expressed the company’s conceptual support for a permitting/regulatory structure for greenhouse gas emissions that would be created and administered by the state of Wyoming.

The utility company seems to be acknowledging that if the state doesn’t do something to reign in greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA almost certainly will.

In a conversation I had afterwards with the committee co-chair, Sen. Grant Larson, he suggested that the state does indeed have authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions; he seemed to be saying that his committee might support the concept of state regulation if it could preserve the state’s primacy over EPA regulations.

During the break after Ms. Woollum’s presentation, I talked with Rob Hurless, Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s energy advisor. I asked him if the governor had expected MidAmerican’s support for state regulation, and he acknowledged that it was completely unanticipated.

The next day, in his regularly scheduled press conference, it seemed the governor had not yet heard the news from Jackson. In an attempt to describe the state’s reluctance to regulate (and, according to the governor, its statutory prohibition against regulating) greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, the governor said:

“We interpret [a 1999 Wyoming greenhouse gas law, which was passed in response to the Kyoto Protocol] to say, ‘Look, this is sufficiently ambiguous. That before you jump out and regulate (greenhouse gases) you better get some legislative action one way or the other.’ So, right now we are not prepared to say we can.”

If the state of Wyoming continues to take this position, however, there is a very real likelihood that the EPA will step in and limit emissions.

The governor realizes—as do legislators who heard testimony from the University of Wyoming and General Electric on Monday—that for new, cleaner coal technologies to be deployed it likely means that all CO2 must have a market value. Such an innovation will almost certainly require some kind of regulation.

While it’s true that some CO2 today has value when it is captured, transported, and sold for enhanced oil recovery—we are still dumping vast, unmanaged quantities of the stuff into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants and other major sources with no monetary and market-based incentive to do otherwise.

Ms. Woollum’s testimony on Tuesday makes it clear that MidAmerican and Rocky Mountain Power are coming to grips with what the Outdoor Council has been saying for so long–it’s time to clean up emissions and prepare to invest in new technologies. Companies have concluded that they can continue to return value to shareholders, provide reliable and affordable energy to their customer bases, and (with luck) do their part to begin to address the very real threats of global climate change and disruption.

There is no doubt that Governor Freudenthal understands all of this and more. He has asserted repeatedly that there is an immense amount of money “sitting on the sidelines” that is waiting to be invested in cleaner energy technologies; and that we need to figure out how to use government action to activate the private sector in a way that modifies behavior but doesn’t choose one technology over another.

Now with the support of industry and environmentalists the governor and the state at last have a chance to “activate the private sector” to move purposefully toward a cleaner energy future that could help build a new, modern, thriving economy and a better environment (more on all of that in my next post).

The Wyoming Outdoor Council will continue to encourage the legislature and the governor to give MidAmerican Energy, GE, and others the regulatory structure and certainty they need.

Contact: Richard Garrett, Jr., energy and legislative advocate, Wyoming Outdoor Council, 307-332-7031 x18; 307-438-9516; richard@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org.

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