The Coal War in the West: Wyoming legislature considers suing Washington to force them to take coal

For two decades, coal companies with operations in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana have been looking for a way to ship their coal across the Pacific. There are existing ports that could handle some coal, but nothing that could handle the millions of tons that the companies hope to ship to steam plants across Asia. Volume was an important factor, because Powder River coal is relatively low-BTU low-price coal. Making a new port designed to handle coal worth it means making something that can handle, at least, tens of millions of tons per year. But that sheer scale—a new port, tens of millions of tons of coal being shipped through by rail, handling of that coal on the ground, etc.—has led coastal states to turn down every proposal. In many cases, these projects have been strongly opposed not just by activists, but by local residents who don’t want to turn their town into the gateway for Wyoming coal. 

But at the other end if the rail line is Wyoming, a state that’s structured their finances around the fees that come in from fossil fuels. With hundreds of millions of tons of coal rolling out of the Powder River Basin, and a hefty tax on every ton, Wyoming residents have enjoyed top flight schools and facilities, while having no state income tax. The state has even socked away billions in savings. But the rise of cheap natural gas from fracking, and the rapidly falling prices for solar and wind has resulted in a sharp decline in demand for steam coal in the United States. That’s left Wyoming in a pickle. 

What to do about a looming, $684 million budget deficit will be the top priority as Wyoming lawmakers begin their annual legislative session Monday, but major changes to taxes or spending don’t appear imminent.

Instead, tax-phobic Wyoming residents are facing some severe spending cuts. But rather than face the idea of implementing new taxes or getting by with less, Wyoming legislators have another idea.

A Republican lawmaker wants Wyoming to sue Washington State for denying a coal port that could carry Powder River Basin coal overseas – and set aside a quarter of a million dollars to do it.