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After Gordon rejects federal climate dollars, two Wyoming communities still eligible for $4.6B pot

The city of Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho Tribe met a short deadline to qualify after Gov. Gordon withdrew participation at the state level.

The Cheyenne Depot, pictured in 2017. (Domenico Convertini/Flickr Creative Commons)

by Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

Despite the statewide implications of climate change and a transition away from fossil fuels, only the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the city of Cheyenne have access to a $4.6 billion pot of federal money set aside by Congress to reduce communities’ reliance on carbon emissions-heavy energy sources and to become more economically resilient.

Both submitted preliminary climate action plans to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month, and in April they will submit the first in a series of grant applications for both large energy projects and community-wide energy efficiency efforts.

“This would be transformational,” Cheyenne Grants Manager Renee Smith told WyoFile. “A lot of our industry partners are wanting green energy opportunities, and we began realizing that, within five years, we aren’t going to be producing enough to meet the demand. So we have to figure out how to diversify.”

“It could be huge,” Wyoming Outdoor Council Energy and Climate Associate Jonathan Williams said. “It’s going to be great for economic diversification and jobs and a lot of potential things that could come into our state because of what they’re able to apply for now.”

Gov. Mark Gordon and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan held a joint press conference at the University of Wyoming on August 9, 2023. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

All Wyoming communities might have shared in the opportunity to benefit from the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants program through the state, but Gov. Mark Gordon rejected the offer in November. Wyoming submitted an application and “Cowboy-State Pollution Reduction Work Plan” last fall, but Gordon subsequently accused the EPA of pulling a “bait-and-switch” by insisting on changes that would “turn Wyoming and other states’ planning efforts upside down into a mandate to prematurely shut down Wyoming’s ‘all-of-the-above’ energy development approach,” he wrote.

Only Wyoming, South Dakota, Florida, Iowa and Kentucky opted out of the federal grants program — each passing up on an initial $3 million infusion to conduct strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as support for planning, community outreach and local grant-writing efforts. Cities of a certain size — and tribal governments — in each of those states, however, were eligible to participate independently. In Wyoming, that left the door open to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, Cheyenne and Casper with a very short turn-around time of March 1 to submit preliminary plans to EPA.

“We’re just trying to be a better community.” RENEE SMITH, CITY OF CHEYENNE

The Northern Arapaho Tribe and Cheyenne met the deadline. (You can read the Northern Arapaho Tribe Priority Climate Action Plan here, and the Greater Cheyenne Priority Climate Action Plan here.) The Tribe received $371,750 for the first phase of the program and Cheyenne received $1 million.

Casper, however, didn’t meet the March 1 deadline.

“The EPA notified us via email in early December that Casper was eligible for a $1 million Climate Pollution Reduction Planning Grant, since the state of Wyoming had withdrawn from the program,” Casper Manager of Public Engagement Jolene Martinez told WyoFile. “Despite the fact we believe we have eligible projects, we were unable to meet the short deadline.”

Climate and economic ambitions

The opportunity to apply for Climate Pollution Reduction Grants came at just the right time for Cheyenne, Smith said. There’s a long queue of large businesses hoping to set up shop in the community, and many of them insist on plugging into low-carbon energy sources.

Based on interest from tech, manufacturing and data center companies, industrial demand in the metropolitan area is expected to grow from about 350 megawatts today to more than 1,200 megawatts by 2030, according to the city.

Downtown Cheyenne pictured during a power outage Feb. 3, 2023. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Though Cheyenne supports an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, Smith said, federal support for renewable energy, along with growing demand among prospective Cheyenne businesses for cleaner energy, appears to be the quickest and most affordable path forward. Even before the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants opportunity, the city itself was already looking for ways to reduce energy costs at its municipal facilities, she said.

Those ambitions included integrating solar energy at its landfill and wastewater treatment plants, and the potential to capture methane from the facilities to sell to a local utility provider — “a net gain no matter how you look at it,” Smith said.

Those plans are now being added to the city’s Phase 2 application due April 1. Cheyenne will also pitch a proposal for a massive “cattle-voltaic” solar energy project to be “co-located” on lands the city leases for grazing. The estimated $50 million project could generate tens of millions in federal tax credits and more than double the income from those lands, according to the city. 

“It’s a different way of looking at the land we have for ranching,” Smith said. “Instead of this boom-and-bust economic situation that we have, it creates a long-term sustainable energy source and an income source.”

The “big” energy projects, as well as a federal focus on voluntary energy efficiency efforts for homes and businesses, are a good fit for both the goals of the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants program and the greater Cheyenne community, according to Smith.

Cheyenne’s landfill is adjacent to Duke Energy’s Happy Jack and Silver Sage wind farms. (City of Cheyenne)

“Ultimately, this will generate income for the city,” she said. “It’s the mayor’s goal to use this money to pay for quality-of-life projects that aren’t covered in our regular budget.”

The city also welcomes the program’s focus on equity and providing opportunities for marginalized members of the community — “something we’ve been missing,” Smith said. “I think it’s one thing to say ‘We’re here listening.’ It’s another to do the work to make change. This is an opportunity for us to do that.”

Meantime, the Northern Arapaho Tribe plans to apply for about $20 million in its Phase 2 application in April, according to the conservation group Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Towns take on climate, cleaner energy

Though the city of Cheyenne and the Northern Arapaho Tribe are the only two local governments in Wyoming to participate in the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants program, they have relied heavily on the example of several other municipalities that have taken on similar efforts.

Laramie, Sheridan, Lander, Jackson and Cody have all taken steps to take on renewable energy projects and to achieve energy efficiencies at municipal facilities — primarily in the name of saving money for local taxpayers. Many of them have also specifically named climate as a motivating factor.

In 2020, Lander’s mayor signed a proclamation acknowledging “the adverse impacts of climate change and the risk it poses to the Lander Community.” That same year, the Laramie City Council signed a proclamation committing to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Jackson aims to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Wyoming Climate Summit attendees watch a demonstration of automation capabilities during the event’s electric vehicle car show June 25, 2022 in Lander. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Those efforts sometimes appear to conflict with state-level politics, such as a recent movement among the most far-right faction of state lawmakers to deny human-caused climate change and to stymie efforts to adapt to rapidly changing energy markets.

During this year’s budget session, the Senate adopted a budget amendment to strip hundreds of millions of dollars in “matching funds” for “innovative” energy projects, including carbon capture initiatives championed by Gordon.

Though the appropriations were mostly restored in the final budget bill, many worry that a climate denial crusade could pose a hurdle for local efforts. In fact, the Fremont County Republican Party recently considered a resolution to remove the city of Lander from the county in protest of the town’s efforts.

Neither the state or its fossil fuel industries should feel threatened, though — at least by the city of Cheyenne’s efforts, according to Smith.

“I don’t feel like this is a competition. This [federal grant program] is a supplement,” Smith said. “We really are an all-of-the-above energy [proponent]. We’re not against any of it. We just see that, as we move forward, we’re not producing enough [energy].

“It’s really just looking at ‘How do we make energy more efficient?” Smith continued. “‘How can we improve quality of life? How can we reduce people’s energy bills?’ It’s an educational thing that I think we’re trying to accomplish. We’re just trying to be a better community.”

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.