Wyoming energy plan seeks wider role in U.S. land planning

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Updating the state's energy plan at a bleak time for Wyoming's coal, oil and natural gas industries offers little solace for people losing their jobs but helps ensure the state is doing all it can for its economy, Gov. Matt Mead said in releasing the plan Monday.

Wyoming can't control the global coal, oil and natural gas markets, but it can help by reducing regulations and speeding up government approvals, Mead said at a news conference.

"We do have things that we can control," he said. "For the state as a whole and our future, we have a choice of either not trying to control the things we can control, or try to be proactive and do what we can."

Mead released his first energy plan in 2013 during his first term. The governor's office checked off 80 percent of those goals as met.

Among them is beginning the process of giving Wyoming the lead role in regulating uranium mining, a duty currently shared with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Wyoming still ranks second only to Texas for producing energy, but the state has seen its biggest-in-the-nation coal industry shrink amid declining demand. Meanwhile, a long-sought goal of opening overseas markets for Wyoming coal via proposed coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest remains elusive.

Oil and gas drilling has all but dried up amid low oil and gas prices for the worst mix of news Wyoming's fossil-fuel economy has seen in decades.

As many politicians in the West clamor for state control over federal lands, the updated plan envisions a greater role for Wyoming in federal land planning. The plan calls for faster federal environmental reviews and decisions on whether to protect certain federal lands known as wilderness study areas as designated wilderness.

Also, the state will seek an agreement with a federal agency to jointly manage an area to control cheatgrass, an invasive species. Cheatgrass damages sagebrush habitat because it is prone to burning and encourages wildfires that burn up sagebrush.

Wyoming has a good relationship with federal land management agencies in Wyoming, but it wants to avoid having to take disputes with the federal government to court, Mead said.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management looks forward to exploring more opportunities to work with its partners in the state, acting BLM State Director Mary Jo Rugwell said in an emailed statement. "Managing public lands for multiple-use and sustained yield on a landscape scale is a challenge that BLM should not take on alone," Rugwell said.

The plan envisions working to recruit manufacturing jobs tied to renewable energy. The up to 1,000 wind turbines planned at a wind farm south of Rawlins — the largest single project in the works in North America — will create demand for turbine manufacturing and maintenance, Mead said.

Recent bankruptcy filings by two major coal companies, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, have raised concerns about their bonding obligations. Under the new energy plan, Wyoming will review its rules for self-bonding, which allow companies to reassure regulators they have the resources to cover the cost to reclaim abandoned mines in lieu of posting conventional bond.

"We want to make sure that we're doing it in a way that absolutely protects the state in terms of reclamation and also, frankly, is fair to the company," Mead said.

The surest way to stop coal mine reclamation in Wyoming would be stop mining, he said.

The plan also calls for ongoing research into finding profitable uses for carbon dioxide emitted from power plants. Research will continue at the University of Wyoming as well as a planned lab at a Gillette-area power plant that will experiment with using the gas in a realistic setting.

"If there's a concern about coal, how do we address that concern? How do we find an answer?" Mead said. "We're not going to get there unless we're part of the solution."

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