CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Responding to President Barack Obama's pledge to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, the governor of the nation's leading coal-producing state emphasized Wednesday that coal plays a critical role in the nation's energy production.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said any future federal regulations must still allow the construction and operation of state-of-the-art coal-fired plants.
"When you think, for example, about what coal means for this country — roughly 40 percent of the electricity produced in this country is by coal," Mead said. "To shut off coal, or to say you can't have further coal development, I think is the wrong way to go."
Obama on Tuesday said he's directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop standards to cut power plant emissions. He said it's beyond dispute that human activities, particularly carbon emissions, are causing global climate change.
"Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air," Obama said. "None. Zero."
To reduce emissions, power companies nationwide that rely on coal-fired plants would face the options of installing expensive pollution control equipment, limiting plants' operating time or shuttering them entirely.
Any such disruptions to the coal industry could hit Wyoming hard. The state drew nearly $290 million in fiscal year 2012 from coal taxes and the industry is also a major employer, particularly in the Powder River Basin area straddling the Wyoming-Montana border.
Wyoming officials, including Mead, have been trying to hedge the state's bets by looking at the prospect of exporting Powder River coal to Asia.
Mead noted Wednesday that Obama has said in the past that the nation needs to tap all of its energy sources.
Wyoming state lawmakers have supported research into the prospect that carbon emissions from coal plants could be captured and stored underground, a process called sequestration.
"I think that holds promise for the coal industry," Mead said. "As you know, Wyoming led the way in terms of laws on carbon capture and carbon sequestration."
Mead recently released a state energy policy that emphasizes both energy development and environmental protection.
"In terms of energy sectors, we need coal; we need oil; we need gas; we need uranium," Mead said. "And we need to have rules and regulations that allow those companies to stay in business."
Mead said his position on the forthcoming EPA carbon regulations will depend on exactly what the federal agency eventually proposes. He said he would oppose regulations that wouldn't allow construction and operation of coal-fired plants that use the latest and best pollution control technology.
Obama, in Tuesday's address, also said the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, should only be approved if it doesn't "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
Mead this month toured some of the Canadian tar sands areas that would produce oil for the pipeline. The pipeline would pass east of Wyoming, cutting across the Dakotas.
"I think one of the things that's important to remember is if we do not have the Keystone Pipeline, and we lose that ability, where else are we going to get that oil from?" Mead said. "Is it going to be pressed off the North American continent to other areas around the world where their environmental regulations and rules aren't nearly as stringent as they would be, say, in Canada or in the United States?"
Mead emphasized that Canada is a friendly trading partner. "The oil is there in the sands," he said. "They're developing it. They have now come a long ways in reclamation."