Over 999,000 readers this year!

Gordon took heat for his ‘carbon negative’ vision. Then he shared it with UW’s conservative student group.

Gov. Mark Gordon discussed his energy vision after months of criticism about his goals. The crowd appreciated the governor’s presence, listening attentively and thanking him after he answered questions.

Gov. Mark Gordon speaks Thursday, April 4, 2024, at a meeting of Turning Point USA's University of Wyoming chapter. Gordon shared his views on energy and carbon with the students. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

by Maya Shimizu Harris and Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

In February, the CO2 Coalition — a group known for promoting misleading information about climate change — stopped in Gillette, Cheyenne and at the University of Wyoming to participate in a series of events hosted by the Wyoming Republican Party and the UW chapter of the conservative student group Turning Point USA. 

Speakers at these events denied that human-caused climate change is real and lambasted Gov. Mark Gordon’s climate and energy policies. The three-stop tour culminated in a gathering at the Wyoming Capitol, where lawmakers sympathetic to the CO2 Coalition made clear that they were not going to hear prevailing viewpoints about carbon dioxide and climate change.

On Thursday, Gordon responded to these events, taking the conversation directly to the UW’s Turning Point chapter, where he spoke and took questions about his energy policy at the student group’s weekly meeting. Gordon told WyoFile that he reached out to UW’s Turning Point students and offered to speak about his energy vision at one of their meetings following the CO2 Coalition events. He intended to directly address some of the statements made by speakers of the organization and others, noting that “there was never any debate” at the event hosted at the Capitol.

About 40 people attended Thursday’s meeting. After explaining his energy strategy and vision, Gordon answered questions from the audience and took a group photo with Turning Point students. Attendees were polite and appreciative of the governor’s presence, thanking him after he answered their questions and listening attentively as he explained the intricacies of his thinking around energy. 

A student makes a video of Gov. Mark Gordon, who spoke Thursday, April 4, 2024, at a meeting of Turning Point USA’s University of Wyoming chapter. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

In the face of declining demand for and increasing restrictions around coal — a bedrock resource that Wyoming relies on for much of its state revenue — Wyoming lawmakers and state executives have been scrambling to find ways to preserve this legacy industry. 

One avenue that Gordon has touted is a technology called carbon capture, utilization and sequestration — capturing carbon from the air or a particular industrial source, then either using it for enhanced oil recovery or storing the planet-warming greenhouse gas underground. Gordon has argued that such nascent technologies are key to helping preserve Wyoming’s coal industries while addressing climate change and market demand to transition toward renewable sources of energy. 

There are questions about the viability of current carbon capture technologies — and doubts as to whether or not they will develop fast enough or be effective enough to save Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries and help curb climate change. One student questioned the effectiveness of carbon capture, given that carbon dioxide must be produced to create the necessary ingredients for the technology. 

“With that math in mind, how can we assume that carbon sequestration is worth doing?” the student asked. 

Gordon responded by saying that he has “great faith that technology improves.” Though the technology is advancing, it has not yet been proven to be economic at a commercial scale, particularly for existing coal-fired power plants.

But beyond the uncertainties about carbon capture technologies, not everyone agrees on the basic premise that human-caused climate change is real, though science affirms that it is. For those who don’t believe climate change is occurring, the goal of reducing carbon in the atmosphere is ludicrous.

Gov. Mark Gordon poses for a photograph with UW students after meeting them during a University of Wyoming’s Turning Point USA chapter meeting. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Gordon created an uproar among Wyoming’s far-right when he touted his energy strategy in October before an audience at Harvard University. The Harvard Crimson, the school’s student newspaper, reported that Gordon described “new carbon capture technologies, forest management, nuclear energy, and geothermal technology as on ‘the entire spectrum of things that we can do to produce reliable, dispatchable energy that people require and need at affordable costs.’” 

The day of the article’s publication, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus — a group of far-right lawmakers that has increasingly seized power and attention in Wyoming politics since its official formation in late 2020 — issued a statement criticizing Gordon for being quoted as saying, “Wyoming is the first that has said that we will be carbon negative.” The group described the governor’s statement as a “drastic change in policy,” though Gordon had previously espoused carbon capture and his goal to make Wyoming carbon-negative in public speeches and statements. 

The Wyoming Freedom Caucus statement was only the beginning of attacks on Gordon’s Harvard speech. In November, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) wrote an email to Senate Republicans accusing Gordon of “promoting the Biden/AOC ‘green new deal’ agenda that Wyoming must become ‘carbon negative’ in order to save the world from climate change.” She invited her colleagues to sign a letter calling on Gordon to debate the issue in public. Thirty lawmakers and Secretary of State Chuck Gray — a former lawmaker whose policies often align with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus — added their names to the letter. Gordon has said that he never agreed to a “debate” but is willing to talk about his climate and energy policy strategies. 

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) gives remarks at a February press conference that followed a legislative hearing that promoted disproven claims about climate change. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Gordon told WyoFile on Thursday that he had anticipated some fallout from the Harvard event but “wanted to take the risk” given his focus on sharing his energy vision — including before audiences that might have a different perspective on renewables and the potential for fossil fuels to continue to be an energy source. But he said he didn’t expect the outcry to be as “pronounced” as it eventually became, particularly given that he has described his energy strategy as a “carbon negative” approach since taking office in 2018. 

UW’s Turning Point group, which is derived from a national organization founded by conservative firebrand Charlie Kirk, in many ways parallels the Wyoming Freedom Caucus at the university level. In fact, the chapter was founded in 2017 by Jessica Rubino, the current Wyoming state director for the State Freedom Caucus Network, who at the time was an undergraduate student. After a rocky start and a contraction of members during the COVID-19 pandemic, the student group has grown its presence on campus. For the first time last year, Turning Point representatives won seats in student government. In an unusual move, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus endorsed two Turning Point students this year — Gabe Saint and JW Rzeszut — to become the next president and vice president of UW’s student government. 

Gabe Saint, president of Turning Point USA’s University of Wyoming chapter, speaks with Gov. Mark Gordon on Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Laramie. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

The UW Turning Point group advertised the Thursday event on its Instagram page as an opportunity to talk about “climate change in Wyoming” with Gordon. But Michael Pearlman, the governor’s spokesperson, said in an email to WyoFile last week that he “would not say that’s accurate.” 

“The Governor offered to speak to them about energy and carbon in Wyoming and take questions, and they were agreeable,” Pearlman said. “That message may have gotten lost in translation, but the purpose of the visit is not to speak specifically about climate change.” 

He added that Gordon “welcomes the opportunity to speak to any audience that wants to engage with him on his energy policies, including [carbon capture, utilization and sequestration] and what Decarbonizing the West actually means.” 

As chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, Gordon made “Decarbonizing the West” the organization’s key initiative, calling on his counterparts to collaborate on a wide range of technologies, including geothermal energy, direct air capture, carbon sequestration and agricultural practices that lower carbon dioxide emissions. 

“There’s been a lot of chatter about me talking about climate per se,” Gordon said at the meeting on Thursday, adding that there are “conflicting data” about whether the climate is getting warmer, with climate changing in some places and not in others. But the world’s top scientists agree that the planet is warming due to human activities. 

“Set that aside, I do want to make sure that you know when they say the governor accepts the fact that there’s going to be climate catastrophes, I’ve never said that,” he told the audience. 

Gordon has, however, lamented in the past that the climate is changing. And he said on Thursday that he does believe “we have urgency in addressing this issue.” Part of that urgency comes from a need to address carbon emissions, but he believes most of the pressure comes from people “voluntarily and sometimes with regulation forcing ourselves off of a known source of energy generation into another source of energy generation that doesn’t have all the kinks worked out.”

He criticized those who describe renewable energy sources like wind and solar as a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels, noting that “the dependability isn’t there either.” 

The question of reliability is complex. Though the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine in specific areas, proponents of these energy sources note that the wind is always blowing somewhere in the West, and solar can be backed up with batteries. What’s more, coal isn’t always a consistent source of energy given volatile market price spikes and routine maintenance of coal plants, which is more frequent as Wyoming’s plants get older. 

Despite his criticisms, Gordon added that he believes there is a place for renewables like wind and solar. 

“But let us not suggest that by putting wind and solar up alone we have solved climate,” he said. Gordon later noted that the energy grid was “designed for coal plants” and “nuclear plants,” and that this design would have to be reengineered to use renewables effectively. 

“It’s not a simple fix,” he said. “It’s not as simple as, ‘Let’s go renewable.’”

Wind turbines north of Medicine Bow, pictured Feb. 9, 2024. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

These challenges, Gordon said later, are the inspiration for showcasing that Wyoming is “way out ahead on things like carbon taxes.” Despite his trepidation around renewables, he struck an optimistic tone about Wyoming’s energy future. 

“When I went to Harvard, I said just exactly what I am saying: We have the ability to generate electricity to power our nation to produce energy dramatically better than we did years ago because we have so many more sources,” he said. 

He touted Gillette’s Integrated Test Center, where carbon capture technologies are currently being tested, and emphasized that Wyoming has “had a leadership role in what we do on regulated carbon for a very, very long time.” 

“Our expertise, our regulatory framework, our ability to promote the kind of technology that is going to make a difference, is something that I continually fight for.” 

Gordon took the opportunity at the Turning Point meeting to distance himself from liberal policymakers that his critics had compared him to. 

“What if we said, ‘We’re gonna do you one better liberals.’ We’re gonna say, ‘We’re gonna go carbon negative.’ Now, I know people go, ‘Oh, my God, that means he’s just trying to kill the industry.’ I hope the point I’ve made is this is how I think it’s important to keep our industry viable.” 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.