CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Republicans running for Wyoming's U.S. House seat placed blame for coal's hard times squarely with the federal government Tuesday, agreeing in a debate the state doesn't need job training help so much as for regulators to get out of the industry's way.
Aside from some by now routine jabs at Liz Cheney's credentials for moving to Wyoming only three years ago, they did little sparring among themselves.
Industry analysts don't deny climate regulation has put a crimp on coal but say low prices for natural gas have played a bigger role in weak demand for coal to generate electricity. Even so, the four top-polling candidates and three other Republicans who debated earlier had government in their sights more than the market forces at work.
"We're not going to need less coal miners. We're going to need more," Cheyenne attorney Darin Smith said in calling for opening up Pacific Northwest ports to export coal. "If we let the free market roll, coal will take care of itself."
Cheney, who is the elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and state Rep. Tim Stubson also said the federal government's role isn't to retrain coal workers but to make sure the industry survives.
"The fundamental obligation of Wyoming's representative in the House of Representatives is not to look for alternatives, or for government programs, long-term to help our coal miners. It's to make sure our coal industry survives," said Cheney.
She called on Congress to repeal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency efforts under the Obama administration to regulate carbon dioxide and other emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"We've got to be in a position where we are looking across the board at ways we can actually get the coal industry back on its feet and going again," she said.
Only state Sen. Leland Christensen explicitly held out the possibility of federal job-training assistance for laid-off coal workers, saying the federal government should simplify and streamline how it awards those funds to states.
Some 500 coal miners in Wyoming, the top coal-producing state, have lost their jobs in recent months while three major coal-mining companies — Peabody Energy, Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal — have gone through bankruptcy reorganization.
Rising unemployment and growing state budget woes amid a triple bust in coal, oil and natural gas have been the biggest issues this political season in Wyoming.
Many see potential salvation by exporting Wyoming's coal to the Far East — if only Oregon or Washington state officials would agree to major port expansions to allow the necessary volumes of coal to leave U.S. shores.
"The first thing I will do is make sure I'm on the committee for commerce and energy to make sure we negotiate those ports and be able to sell our products around the world," said Mike Konsmo, an English instructor at Northwest College in Powell, in a separate debate for three other Republican candidates.
Torrington corrections officer Jason Senteney cast doubt on whether that would ever happen.
"We need to look at something different. We need to either work with Canada or figure out a way to use Union Pacific or Burlington Northern-Santa Fe to ship that coal up to Alaska and use their ports," said Senteney.
"Obviously the Left Coast isn't going to allow us to use their ports."
Eight Republicans are running to replace Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who announced last year she is not seeking a fifth term. The two Democrats running for their party's nomination called for boosting the federal minimum wage but disagreed by how much.
The federal minimum wage needs to increase from $7.25 to $15 an hour, said Charlie Hardy, a retired Roman Catholic priest speaking of families getting by.
A good starting point to begin talking about a higher minimum wage would be $10, said Ryan Greene, Rock Springs, a manager in his family's energy services company.
"We have small businesses where this would double their payroll," Greene said.
Hardy pointed to his years of ministering to impoverished people in Latin America as a key qualification. Greene says he's been a roustabout and held many other jobs in his family's business.