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How an EPA plan to cut carbon emissions is playing out in coal-rich Wyoming

In Wyoming, people care about issues that affect their land and energy resources. A recently announced EPA initiative to cut carbon emissions, the Clean Power Plan, aims to move American electricity generation away from coal -- the economic lifeblood for that state. Special correspondent Leigh Paterson of Inside Energy looks at both sides of the fight.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The rise in greenhouse gases and temperatures are the reasons why the president has issued new restrictions on coal-fired power plants in this country.

    But now that Republicans hold control of Congress, one issue high on their agenda, blocking or delaying the EPA's plans.

    We get a report on how that's viewed in a key energy-producing state, Wyoming.

    It comes from Leigh Paterson of Inside Energy. That's a public media collaboration on energy issues, working with the NewsHour.

  • LEIGH PATERSON, Inside Energy:

    Caring for a few hundred cows during the Wyoming winter is hard work. Subzero temperatures and hurricane-force winds are normal.

    Rancher Dave Hamilton say it's part of the disconnect between people who live off the land and those who regulate the environment.

  • DAVE HAMILTON, President, Natural Gas Processing Co.:

    We seem to have people that have never, ever even set foot on — in the state of Wyoming, that don't understand farming, don't understand ranching pass rules that affect us all, when, in fact, we all want to keep our land together. I can't make a living if I destroy my land.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    In 2010, the EPA sued Hamilton for building an irrigation ditch that it claimed violated the Clean Water Act. His lawyer says the agency was seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.

    But when the case went to court, the jury ruled in Hamilton's favor because farming and ranching are generally exempt from the Clean Water Act.

  • DAVE HAMILTON:

    We don't want to have air like China. And we don't want to have water that has so much benzene in it that all the fish are dead. But I think the problem is, is that if we would have interaction that creates solutions — well, what we're having is, you can't do this. We don't know what you're going to do about it, but you can't do this, because we're going to fine you.

  • GINA MCCARTHY, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency:

    This is about protecting our health and it is about protecting our homes.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    In June, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the clean power plant. It's the agency's newest proposal to cut carbon emissions.

  • GINA MCCARTHY:

    All told, in 2030, when the states meet the final goals, our proposal will result in 30 percent less carbon pollution from the power sector across the United States in comparison to 2005 levels.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    People here in Wyoming care deeply about issues that affect their land and energy resources. And this plan is threatening because it aims to slash carbon emissions by 30 percent in part by moving American electricity generation away from coal.

    And this hard black rock is Wyoming's lifeblood. Mineral extraction accounts for nearly 75 percent of the state's revenue, about a third coming from coal, to fund things like schools and road construction and a huge state savings account.

    Wyoming has a long history of coal mining, and these days, the state provides nearly 40 percent of the nation's supply. But the top executive at this mine does acknowledge concerns about emissions from burning coal.

    Colin Marshall is the CEO of Cloud Peak Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the country.

  • COLIN MARSHALL, CEO, Cloud Peak Energy:

    I believe the science is clearly not settled, but there are some theories out there. And if they're right that the CO2 emissions are significant, then they could — potentially could be very — a big impact on the world and its climate.

    And I always think, well, what happens if the impact on climate change are twice as bad as people are thinking?

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Marshall believes the answer is the technology shown here at the Boundary Dam Power Station, the world's first and only carbon capture power plant. Components like this absorber tower are bolted on and then remove the harmful CO2 right out of emissions.

  • COLIN MARSHALL:

    Let's develop the technology so, if it's appropriate to play the card, we have actually got the technology we need.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Boundary Dam opened in Canada last year, but installing this technology on a wide commercial scale is almost prohibitively expensive.

    And so coal country is fighting back against the clean power plant. In August, Wyoming, along with 11 other states, sued the EPA, hoping to derail the proposal. But this is just the latest chapter in a long history of conflict. Since the year 2000, the state has sued the EPA 12 times over issues like regional haze and mercury emissions, and that doesn't even include the lawsuit that is joined on behalf of other states.

    Professor Harold Bergman specializes in environmental toxicology.

    HAROLD BERGMAN, University of Wyoming: Wyoming can file 100 lawsuits a month if they want, and it's not going to change a thing. This is going to get fixed. It absolutely must.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    He says Wyoming lawmakers need to recognize the realities of a changing climate.

  • HAROLD BERGMAN:

    The consequences for the coal industry, for instance, are going to be severe, and they have to begin adjusting for it now. If they don't, we're going to be blindsided.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    The sole U.S. House representative for the state of Wyoming doesn't share this sense of certainty.

    REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS, (R) Wyoming: The climate is changing. The climate is always changing. And the science on mankind's role in the change of climate is simply not as well-established as one would have us think.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    And as the chair of a brand-new subcommittee focused on energy and environmental policy, Lummis says she will work to gather information on how the EPA's policies affect people.

    She and her fellow legislator Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, who chairs the Republican Policy Committee, believe the clean power plan would result in job loss and higher utility bills. And so blocking it is a priority among Republicans in leadership positions.

    Lummis hints at their strategy here.

  • REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS:

    We will have the power of the purse and can use it in a way that will allow us to send messages to the president that certain policies and rule-making is having a negative impact on jobs and the economy, mostly in rural America and in energy-producing areas of our country.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    At Jake's Tavern, a popular hangout in coal country, energy worker Brandon Allee says the issue is more about politics, but more about Wyoming's rugged independent mentality.

  • BRANDON ALLEE, Energy Worker:

    There's a lot of us around here that we have been here for generations, and the EPA coming in and telling us what we can and can't do or making it really hard for us to do what needs to be done just doesn't settle well with a lot of us.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Wyoming exports more energy than any other state, so there's a lot on the line in the debate over the clean power plant.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Leigh Paterson in Wyoming.

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