DOUGLAS – A group of lawmakers, accusing wind farms of “seeking to shut down” the coal industry, drummed up proposals Wednesday to increase taxes on the renewable energy source to raise money for education.
There are 21 wind farms across Wyoming that on a blustery day can produce 1,412 megawatts of power, and a handful of additional projects in the works. But much of the discussion during the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee meeting at the Wyoming State Fairgrounds was on how the industry has allegedly contributed to the decline of coal.
In Wyoming, money that pays for school construction and major maintenance comes from an account that is mostly funded through payments made by coal companies when they lease federal land for mining. Coal prices have been down for years, and the account is drying up. Lawmakers discussed scenarios by which wind revenues could flow into the account.
“That’s why it’s a logical tax,” said Rep. Mike Madden, a chairman of the Revenue committee. “It’s too bad we don’t have more turbines now.”
The committee ultimately ordered its nonpartisan staff to draft two bills that would increase taxes on wind. One would increase the tax per megawatt hour of wind produced in Wyoming. The current tax is a dollar per megawatt hour. The actual amount of the change would be decided by the committee later.
The second bill that will be drafted would require wind companies to fork over a portion of the federal production tax credit they receive from the federal government – perhaps as much as $12 per megawatt hour. But the exact amount would also be decided later.
Wind energy industry representatives told the committee in person and in written communications that increased taxes might prevent development of the industry in Wyoming. That didn’t seem to deter lawmakers.
“If it kills a project, it kills a project,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.
Jim Willox, a Converse County commissioner, said his county receives necessary revenue from the industry. He disagreed with a study by the Legislature’s nonpartisan staff that compared taxes of coal and natural gas to wind and found wind pays much less. Coal and natural gas must pay severance taxes, because they’re removing a non-renewable product from the ground that future generations will not be able to access. Wind is renewable, he said.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, disagreed, arguing that wind turbines destroyed viewsheds for up to 200 years, a much longer time than mines and drilling rigs.
“With wind, that viewshed is lost forever,” he said. “It is severed.”
Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, suggested the committee should consider taxes for acreage that wind farms occupy. However, that concept failed to gain traction at the meeting.
Jody Levin, a lobbyist who represents Rocky Mountain Power, said company officials would be happy to discuss the issue with lawmakers at the next Revenue meeting.
“Wyoming already has the highest wind tax in the nation,” she said.
About 40 people attended the discussion. Many of them were fossil fuel lobbyists.