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Coal Country Races to Shield Itself From Biden’s Climate Plan

A series of state proposals would make it harder to shut down coal-fired power plants even as clean energy becomes cheaper. 

The Colstrip coal-fired power plant in eastern Montana, in 2008.

The Colstrip coal-fired power plant in eastern Montana, in 2008.

Photographer: William Campbell/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Coal’s slow downfall is gaining momentum across the U.S. as clean energy becomes cheaper and wins widespread support, but lawmakers in mining states from Wyoming to West Virginia are determined to fight back with a series of roadblocks to President Joe Biden’s plan to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Seeking to prolong the lifespan of an industry that’s vital to local economies, at least five states are seeking to pass legislation that would give them weapons such as bigger hurdles to shut coal-fired plants, a war chest for potential legal battles, more power to state regulators over utilities, tax cuts and cheaper state insurance for power stations. 

The race to shield coal country from an energy transition that Biden contends will generate jobs and wealth in everything from solar-panel manufacturing to wind power generation highlights the political complexity of the shift to renewables. Even some Democrats in coal-producing states support the efforts to protect people’s livelihoods and the funding of schools and other public services in areas that derive income from the dirtiest fossil fuel. Meanwhile, utilities say the measures will drive up costs for ratepayers, while environmental groups say they’re only slowing, not stopping, the eventual move away from coal.

“It’s not planning for the future,” said Dennis Wamsted, an analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “It’s protecting the past.”

In Colstrip, a town in eastern Montana founded by the Northern Pacific Railway in 1924 to provide coal for steam locomotives, a power plant supplied by local mines has long been crucial to the area’s economy. That’s why Mark Sweeney, a Democratic state senator, supports proposals aimed specifically at keeping it open. Even though he recognizes climate change is a serious issue and that his stance makes him an outlier in his party, he says he worries about the devastating impact of a shutdown to the community. If it shuts, "it's a ghost town," he said.

Sweeney, who hopes the Colstrip plant can run for at least another 10 years, also argues that few emissions are produced delivering coal from the nearby mine, and that’s much more efficient than shipping the fuel to power plants in other states or across the world.