CASPER — Wyoming’s mineral industries are lobbying for the right to hire their own contractors to speed up permitting normally performed by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

The coal and coal-fired utilities industry is also lobbying for tax breaks for “advanced” coal-based power plants, an action that could sap an estimated $25 million in state revenues for each new plant, according to one estimate.

Both bills will be considered by the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee when it meets Monday and Tuesday in Jackson.

 

Hired permitters

 

DEQ administrator John Corra testified to Wyoming lawmakers during this year’s legislative session that the agency was effectively fulfilling its regulatory duties despite an ever increasing workload. However, things have changed since, Corra told the Star-Tribune this week.

A more detailed analysis now reveals that the permitting backlog at the DEQ’s Land Quality Division is indeed growing. Corra said he has recommended hiring seven more people to handle the workload in the Land Quality Division.

“It’s primarily related to, first of all, the amount of uranium permits that came at us all at once. And they’re going to keep coming at us,” said Corra, adding that the backlog also includes coal mining permit applications.

It’s unclear what kind of support the industries will offer to Corra’s request for more manpower. But there is support for the idea that companies be allowed to hire contractors to perform the permit review duties to speed up the process.

The draft “environmental quality expedited permit reviews” bill is expected to generate a lot of discussion at the committee’s hearing next week.

Environmental and government watchdog groups have already voiced disapproval.

“It comes down to what role does DEQ ... fulfill in this state? It’s supposed to be the ultimate body that serves as independent referee between industry, citizens and all stakeholders. We’re concerned that consultants hired by industry, paid for by industry, won’t have that same independence,” said Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Committee co-chairman Rep. Tom Lockhart, R-Casper, said he sees a need to address the industries’ concerns about the backlog and the time it takes to review and issue permits. The committee has asked the DEQ to provide information about its recent permitting track record.

“Permitting through DEQ has always been very time-consuming. More recently, the times seem to be getting longer,” Lockhart said.

Corra said he could not support the bill in its original draft, so he suggested changes. Corra’s suggestions would allow a permit applicant to request that a contractor be hired to perform the permit review. Then the decision would be up to each DEQ division administrator.

Corra said those changes, if accepted, would essentially mean “this is not an industry decision to make. It is an industry request.”

Conversely, a citizen or an environmental group could request that a contractor be hired to perform onsite inspections of DEQ-regulated activities.

“If somebody thought we needed to do more inspections, they can come talk to us and we’d find a way to do more inspections,” said Corra.

However, that idea is not expressed in the proposed legislation.

 

Keeping pace

 

During the last legislative session, several citizen and conservation groups argued that the DEQ may need more staff to enforce regulations after a 12-year period of increased activities in nearly all minerals sectors in Wyoming.

Natural gas production in the Rocky Mountain region doubled to 8 billion cubic feet per day from 2002 to 2009, with Wyoming leading the way. During the same period, Wyoming’s annual coal production spiked by more than 15 percent to nearly 430 million tons.

Since 2003, the number of permitted facilities that the DEQ must oversee grew from 20,000 to 28,000 — a 40 percent increase, according to the DEQ. During the same period, the DEQ added 55 people to its staff for a total of 268 full-time positions, a 26 percent increase.

The DEQ’s effectiveness was called into question because of ozone problems in Pinedale related to deep natural gas drilling. Groundwater contamination is an ongoing problem in Pavillion, and an oil refinery near Rawlins has spilled, on at least 14 occasions, toxic chemicals onto the ground and into the air during the past year and a half.

“I think they (DEQ) have worked to do it right. They have good, qualified people there,” Lockhart said.

However, Lockhart said he believes government agencies can’t do every job better than the private sector.

“I see some people there are probably trying to overreach, and the federal government is trying to reach into states,” Lockhart said.

 

Tax exemptions

 

The same “coal value added facilities tax exemptions” bill now before the Joint Minerals Committee made it out of committee during the 2010 Legislature. But it was dropped when Black Hills Power canceled a proposal for an oxy-combustion coal plant near Gillette.

Lockhart said the bill is a leftover that the committee must decide whether to carry forward. Because there is no proposed advanced coal facility in Wyoming, Lockhart said the committee will likely drop the bill for now.

However, he does support the sales and use tax exemption — the same type of exemption that state lawmakers wanted to rescind from the wind energy industry.

“More often than not, incentives do help projects come to our state,” said Lockhart, retired vice president of PacifiCorp and current member of Arch Coal Inc.’s board of directors.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council submitted written comments to the joint committee this week expressing concerns about the effectiveness of such tax exemptions.

The group argued that giving some industries an exemption could create an unfair playing field for other self-identified “clean” or “advanced” sectors of the energy economy. Companies that develop natural gas, uranium and wind could make a strong argument that coal does not deserve special treatment, according to the group.

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin.bleizeffer@trib.com or 307-577-6069.

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