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Legislative committee meets behind closed doors with railroad

The House Minerals Committee held a rare executive session to discuss coal shipping challenges and proprietary information with BNSF Railway.

A coal train navigates its load through an s-curve near Coal Creek Jct. in the Powder River Basin. (Jerry Huddleston/FlickrCC)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee held a rare executive session Feb. 24 with BNSF Railway officials to discuss railroad challenges, including its plans to improve coal shipments out of the Powder River Basin.

Rep. Donald Burkhart, Jr. (R-Rawlins), the committee chairman, said the executive session came at the request of BNSF — one of two railroads that ship millions of tons of coal from northeast Wyoming to power plants in 25 states.

“BNSF requested an executive session due to the proprietary information shared during the meeting, including the company’s costs, forecasts and plans for the future,” Burkhart told WyoFile. “The issue of rail transport is critical to Wyoming’s economy and meeting the energy demands of the country.”

Coal mines across the country have suffered curtailed coal shipments during the past two years, which the railroad industry blames on supply chain issues and the inability to refill positions after massive layoffs. Though coal shipments have improved in the eastern U.S., according to coal producers, the situation still hamstrings mines in the Powder River Basin.

Wyoming coal mines have lost out on an estimated 50 million tons in coal sales, costing the state about $100 million in revenue in 2022, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. 

“It’s not just coal,” Wyoming Mining Association Executive Director Travis Deti said. “It’s our soda ash operators. It’s our bentonite operators that are having issues, and all the agriculture commodities. It’s a nationwide problem. Unfortunately, where it’s impacting Wyoming the most is moving our mined materials.”

Powder River Basin coal producer Navajo Transitional Energy Company filed a lawsuit against BNSF in December, claiming the railroad “caused NTEC to lose over $150 million in revenue and to incur over $15 million in demurrage penalties for 2022,” the company said.

Neither Burkhart or Gov. Mark Gordon’s office would comment on whether the state might intervene in the case. House Bill 69 – Coal-fired facility closures litigation funding-amendments, signed into law Feb. 15, gives the governor’s office $1.2 million to fund legal actions in defense of Wyoming coal, including litigation against actions that “result in the decreased use of coal.”

Gordon’s Chief Energy Advisor Randall Luthi acknowledged in legislative testimony this session that the fund is a potential tool for addressing the coal shipment issue.

Closed doors

Legislative committees are permitted to exclude the public from their meetings. House Rule 4-3 states, “All committee meetings will be open to the public unless declared an executive session by the chairman.”

Though permitted, executive sessions are rare.

“I don’t think I ever saw an executive session of a legislative committee in the years I lobbied” from 1988 to 2014, former lobbyist Larry Wolfe told WyoFile. “Since the legislative process is not done in secret, the only reason for it would be for the company to wish to prevent the disclosure of proprietary information or for the committee to take the company to the woodshed over its operations or plans.”

During the executive session, a WyoFile reporter observed a slideshow  presentation through a doorway window to the meeting room at the Capitol. After the meeting, about a dozen people exited the room, including Legislative Service Office staff members.

Senate Minerals Chairman Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and Rep. David Northrup (R-Powell) also attended the executive session, according to Burkhart.

“This was a necessary conversation and I look forward to more discussion with BNSF in the future,” he said.

BNSF did not reply to an inquiry by WyoFile.

It’s unclear whether the minerals committee will take up the issue of coal-by-rail deliveries. The topic was not discussed as the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee considered interim topics on Tuesday. 

House Bill 204 – Allowable train lengths would have limited the length of trains in Wyoming to prevent congestion. The measure was voted down in the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. The Wyoming Mining Association opposed the bill for fear it would reduce volumes of coal shipped out of Wyoming, Deti said.

“I don’t really see a legislative role,” Deti said. “It’s literally in the railroads’ court. They’ve got to make the adjustments and make the changes and do what they’ve got to do to hire the people they can, drive and maintain those trains so that we can get more trains and get more coal out of the state.”

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.