By Richard Garrett, Jr. story filed Feb 27, 8 a.m.

Your voice for conservation at the Wyoming State Legislature

The external costs of fossil fuels, funding conservation, protecting landowners, and a renewal of the Sagebrush Rebellion?

Even as the 2013 Wyoming legislative session winds down, there are still issues in play and several bills that await Gov. Matt Mead’s signature.

But this seems a good time to look back at the last seven weeks and see what has been accomplished, what issues weren’t resolved, reflect on a couple of bad bills, and take a peek ahead to see what the interim is going to bring.

During this session there were 423 bills introduced (260 House bills, 163 Senate files) and six resolutions.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council closely tracked 17 bills on the House side and 14 on the Senate side. In order to be passed, a bill has to survive 11 different major checkpoints along the way and a few that are hidden between the cracks.

I attended committee meetings every day of the session, listened to floor debates, and spent a lot of time in the lobbies on both sides of the capitol. I had meetings with agency officials as well as folks in Governor Mead’s administration. Add to that the receptions (an average of two per night) and it all makes for a jam-packed couple of months in Cheyenne.

Here are some highlights from 2013.

Senate File 142 (SF 142) – Utility rate making

This bill, despite its sponsorship by one of our favorite legislators, Senator Cale Case, was one that we opposed and for good reason.

It would have put into question the Public Service Commission’s authority to structure electricity rates in ways that encourage the use of renewable energy in Wyoming.

Our argument on behalf of our members was that rates should favorably reflect the further deployment of renewable energy. Federal rules clearly allow utility commissions to use a variety of methodologies to determine what are called “avoided costs” and how those costs are factored into rates. Using these guidelines, the Wyoming PSC has ruled in favor of policies, rules, and rates based on several motivations, including ratepayer neutrality, least cost, and accuracy, or to provide incentives for development of renewables.

In the House Corporations Committee, we argued that the bill would have provided a disincentive for renewable energy and would thus have negative consequences for our efforts to combat climate change.

Others argued that the bill was poorly worded and was intended to solve a unique circumstance on behalf of a select group of landowners (people who don’t want wind turbines in their viewsheds). Senator Case said that the intent of the bill was to make sure that least-cost resources would always be favored by the PSC.

It is worthwhile to note that existing infrastructure and facilities will almost always seem to provide a lower cost of goods and services to the consumer. Our thought is that the challenges imposed on our way of life by the externalities of this older infrastructure are seldom if ever calculated in a way that would make it more obvious to the end user of the risks of low-cost energy.

One of those risks (and hidden costs) became apparent late last year when the people (and especially women and children) of the state of Wyoming were warned against consuming too much fish due to elevated levels of mercury found in many species.

If we take into account this potential challenge to one of our state’s many assets perhaps the cost of traditional energy generation would not be so attractive to consumers or decision-makers.

The bill was defeated in committee.

House Bill (HB 81) – Large project funding

For seven years, each generation of the Legislature has wisely supported the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and its proposed large projects (projects whose cost exceeds $200,000).

For the last two years, many of those projects have included conservation easements on agricultural land that the Trust board has found to be crucial for habitat, species, and open space.

The Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust—which was created by the Wyoming Legislature in 2005 “to enhance and conserve wildlife habitat and natural resource values throughout the state”—is one of this state’s key institutions as its mission ultimately benefits all residents. Any project designed to improve wildlife habitat or natural resource values is eligible for funding from the Trust.

The Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust is an independent state agency governed by a nine-member citizen board appointed by the Governor.

This year’s Legislature tried in a variety of ways to eliminate, scale-back, or restrict the state’s investment in conservation easements. House Bill 81 was the authorizing bill, but the Trust was attacked in no fewer than three bills by amendments that would have significantly altered its mission and diminished any substantive future contribution by the state for protecting sage-grouse.

Together with a diverse array of conservation groups (and in particular The Nature Conservancy), agricultural groups such as the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association and the Stockgrowers Land Trust, prominent individuals such as Sara Flitner, labor representatives from the AFL-CIO, and many others) we were successful in not only getting House Bill 81 approved but also in defeating the various attempts to alter the future course of the Trust.

House Bill 40 (HB 40) and Senate File 118 (SF 118) – Eminent domain

Infrastructure development in Wyoming (including wind developments, transmission lines, road construction, and pipeline construction) can have significant impacts on wildlife, habitat, viewscapes, and personal property rights.

The state has historically extended the right to condemn property to utilities and more recently has extended that right to some developers. This right is, in the minds of many, inappropriately given and too frequently applied. House Bill 40 extends a moratorium on the wind energy industry’s ability to claim eminent domain for wind energy collector lines. Senate File 118 gives landowners an opportunity to force a developer to more correctly value the land condemned for development.

As of this writing, the bill is headed to a conference committee to reconcile differences between the house and senate versions. Assuming concurrence is reached, it will be up to the governor to sign or veto the bill. House Bill 40 has already been approved and signed into law by the governor.

House Bill 16 (HB 16) and Senate File 136 (SF 136) – Seismic exploration

When House Bill 16 died in committee on the House side, Senator Bruce Burns introduced a similar bill in the Senate (SF 136). That bill is due for a concurrence meeting and the governor’s decision.

Essentially this bill protects landowners from “entrepreneurial” seismic operations, a particularly contentious issue in Laramie and Converse counties with the rush to develop oil and gas on private lands.

Many landowners have had to endure multiple incursions on their property by seismic exploration companies with little or no recourse if damage to buildings, roads, fields, fences, livestock, or infrastructure happens as a consequence of that exploration.

Senate File 136 forces companies to have a contractual relationship with the mineral estate holder and to post a bond at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The Powder River Basin Resource Council did a lot of heavy lifting on this issue and deserves much credit for getting it off of life support and (apparently) on it way to the governor. Kudos to Shannon Anderson, Jill Morrison, Kevin Lind, and Bill Bensel of the PRBRC.

House Bill 260 – Game and fish license fees

I’ve written previously about how this bill came to be introduced and its subsequent failure to win approval on the House floor. The bill would have secured the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s funding resources for an additional two years.

But without this authorization to increase license fees, the Game and Fish Department anticipates significant shortfalls in programs and cutbacks.

This will be an interim topic for the Travel, Wildlife, and Recreation committee. One of their meetings is tentatively scheduled to be in Guernsey, WY and it might coincide with the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s (also tentatively planned) board/staff meeting (to which all members are invited). We will keep readers of this blog informed on the details.

House Bill 228 (HB 228) – Federal land study

This bill, which some have referred to as the Sagebrush Rebellion redux, would use $33,000 of taxpayer money to fund a study to see how Wyoming can take over public lands in the state. Somehow this bill made it through 10 of the 11 checkpoints mentioned above.

The only checkpoint left is its stop at the governor’s desk. The Wyoming attorney general told the Legislature that the effort is unconstitutional. We made the case that the bill is also duplicative of other studies that the state already has underway and has undertaken in years past. We hope this is persuasive to the governor. I am grateful to Barry Bruns for participating as a citizen in our effort to influence this bill.

Senate File 157 – Hydraulic fracturing disclosure requirements

Senator Floyd Esquibel introduced this bill, which failed on a 5-0 vote in the senate minerals committee. The good news is that the governor’s staff has committed to rulemaking at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission and/or at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to accomplish many of the bill’s provisions—and most particularly baseline testing of groundwater prior to resource development.

This will be one of the most important interim topics on the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s agenda and you can be sure that you will hear more on this in the weeks and months to come. If state agencies fail to act, Senator Esquibel and Senator Chris Rothfuss have strongly indicated that this issue will be a legislative priority in 2014.

Senate File 55 (SF 55) – Energy education initiative

This bill, largely supported by industry, ended up being significantly amended by the Senate, and again in the House. We argued that since industry had characterized itself as a “vested interest” in the state’s public education system that the initiative would be biased.

Thankfully, that argument was heard and the subsequent amendments made the bill much less ominous than when it was introduced. While materials about energy development will be made available to teachers, it will not be required that they use or access those materials. Additionally, a conservation component will be included in the materials.

We are grateful to Edith Cook, a resident of Cheyenne, for pointing the way to the availability of these resources.

House Bill 63 (HB 63) – State primacy on greenhouse gas

As it did in the 2012 session, the Wyoming Legislature is trying to assert its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

The keys to the bill are two—first, the state can be no more restrictive than the federal government on emissions and, second, the state has indicated to stakeholders that it will issue permits on a timelier basis than the federal government would.

As was the case in 2012, it is somewhat remarkable that the state acknowledges the existence of greenhouse gases. In testimony to the Senate Minerals Committee I maintained that the state should consider with aspiration the economic and competitive advantages that stronger environmental regulations might bring. Here is the Casper Star Tribune article on the bill.

Senate File 162 (SF 162) – Authorized taking of an eagle

This bill, perhaps misunderstood by the media, is one that would bring Wyoming law into conformance with federal law that allows the limited taking of golden eagles in areas where they are depredating sheep.

While some believe it has implications on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the bill was not sponsored as a way to resolve that ongoing issue.

Senate File 66, Senate File 20 – Conservation easements and state acquisition of land

These bills either through their primary purpose or as amended would have unreasonably restricted state investments in conservation easements.

Without repeating what I wrote above (on HB 81), it is imperative that the state put “skin in the game” in the effort to protect habitat, and avoid the consequence of further declines in Wyoming’s sage-grouse population.

Senate File 76 (SF 76) – Bighorn sheep relocation

This bill requires the relocation or removal of the bighorn sheep population in the Medicine Bow National Forest if a lawsuit successfully challenges grazing permits there.

The only amendment to the bill was one we asked for—that the removal not be undertaken until all judicial proceedings have been completed. The law will expire in 2015.

It is definitely bad practice and a bad precedent for the Legislature to micro-manage the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Gov. Mead has signed this bill.

Senate File 6 and Senate File 7 – Office of consumer advocate

These bills, both sponsored by Senator Case, clarify and strengthen the office of consumer advocacy at the state Public Service Commission.

It will underscore the advocate’s role in rate hearings and require the office to intervene effectively in rate cases. While we supported the bills, I also asked the corporations committees to consider as an interim topic an Office of Environmental Advocacy, which would be engaged in rate cases.

My thought is that utilities, regulators, and consumers are often driven to a least-cost alternative to energy generation (which means fossil fuels) without any regard for the externalities of that generation (human health implications, mercury levels in lakes, etc.). I will continue to advocate this proposal to the joint interim committees.

As noted, a few (actually several) bills have yet to make their final and 11th step to becoming laws. Clearly we will be asking Gov. Mead to veto House Bill 228—it’s very hard to see from my perspective how he could justify its approval. In addition to wasting taxpayer money, the bill paves the way for the renewal of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Wyoming—is that where the governor wants to go? I hope not.

Any questions or comments?  I am always available via email or phone and welcome your ideas and support.

I am truly grateful that the Wyoming Outdoor Council members and board have given me the opportunity to represent them at the Legislature.

If you would like more information, you can find the specific bills at the legislative website or be in touch with me. Thank you!

Contact: Richard Garrett, richard@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org


Other posts you might want to see:

Capitol blog: Game and Fish funding bill died, but that’s not the end of the story

Capitol blog: Let’s keep politics out of wildlife management

AP: Wyo’s Gov to Pursue Required Groundwater Testing Prior to Drilling

Column: Intransigence on climate pollution risks much, including Wyoming jobs

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