GILLETTE — Giving the Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council authority to take independent legal action over Washington state’s efforts to kill a coal export terminal project sends a message more than it threatens a lawsuit.
That’s what state Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Campbell/Converse, takes away from House Bill 251, which passed the Senate on the Legislature’s final day Wednesday and is awaiting Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature.
Wyoming already is involved in litigation over the proposed $680 million Millennium coal export terminal in Longview, Washington, which has been blocked by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee by claiming the potential damage coal does to the environment.
The terminal’s parent company, Lighthouse Resources Inc., is suing over Washington’s actions to block the terminal, claiming one state can’t squash the rights of other states. Wyoming’s attorney general, along with the attorneys general of five other states, has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Lighthouse’s lawsuit.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is another.
“Governor Inslee has made his ideological opposition to coal abundantly clear over the years, proving pro-coal projects will never get a fair shake by his administration,” he said last May.
This week’s action by the state Legislature, which also set aside $250,000 for potential litigation is a message that “we’re pretty serious about it,” Wasserburger said.
He also said there’s support for the Attorney General’s Office and its efforts to support the pending litigation over the terminal.
“The AG does a great job defending Wyoming. They have almost 80 attorneys in that office,” he said, adding Wyoming already has been hurt by Washington’s actions.
“Quite frankly, if you think about it, how can one state not allow another state to ship its product?” Wasserburger said. “It’s a violation of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. How they’re allowed to do this is amazing.”
HB 251 will “allow the Legislature to start a separate lawsuit” if it feels it’s necessary, he said.
While he voted to support the bill, state Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Campbell, said he wants to ensure first that any potential legal action by the Legislature doesn’t get in the way of Lighthouse’s efforts.
“My hope is they fight it out and we don’t spend any of our time and/or money filing a lawsuit,” he said. “But, I’m from Campbell County and I had to vote aye on this, and it does send a good message.”
By blocking the coal port terminal, Washington state is in effect strangling the ability of Wyoming to market and ship its high-quality thermal coal to other markets, particularly Japan, said state Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Natrona, who sponsored the bill.
“There is enormous harm to the citizens of Wyoming caused by the lack of action on this issue,” Gray said in a press release. “Just Phase I of the Millennium coal export project would create thousands of jobs. It is so important that we get this done.”
Estimates from the state Legislative Affairs Office show Wyoming has the potential to supply 60 percent of the 22 million tons of coal the terminal would handle after Phase I of the project. That would gave a potential $25 million revenue impact. Phase II, which would double the terminal’s capacity, that would potentially double those numbers for the state.
With domestic markets shrinking and the price of thermal coal continuing to slump, exporting Powder River Basin coal becomes more important to the state and industry, Wasserburger said.
That state lawmakers are in position to take legal action on their own initiative “shows the frustration of the Legislature at this point,” he said.