How This Republican Governor Is Trying to Modernize Coal Country
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Cowboy State has open spaces for experimentation.
By Nick Fouriezos
Like many in Wyoming, Matt Mead followed in his family’s footsteps — only rather than taking over the family farm or ranch, he traced the path of his grandfather, Clifford Hansen, straight to the governor’s mansion. The former Bush-appointed U.S. attorney has presided over the Cowboy State since 2010, guiding it through some of the decade’s greatest challenges involving labor, health care and coal. The Equality State produces nearly 400 million tons of the dark combustible annually — the most in the nation and almost four times that of West Virginia. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One might call your state the real coal country. What is the industry’s future in Wyoming?
Gov. Matt Mead: We have collectively spent a lot of time deciding who is right, who is wrong and what names to call people we disagree with. I have tried to move this state beyond [the bickering] to say that if we’re the No. 1 coal-producing state, we need to recognize that the market believes in climate change partially being man-made, that the banks believe in it. And around the planet, we see countries that we could sell coal to, who strongly believe in concerns around CO2. Regardless of personal beliefs or skepticism, if you are the leading coal producer, you also have an opportunity, an obligation, to address this issue.
I asked the legislature to provide money for what we call the Integrative Test Center. We are having scientific teams across the planet competing to see who can not only capture flue gas — that’s already being done — but also find ways to turn that CO2 into something valuable. That, to me, is going to be a game changer. When you think of other products, like a beef cow, we try not to waste any of it: We use the hide, all of it. With coal, it’s been thermal … and that’s been it.
We should be a leader in technology because it provides a lot of solutions to a rural state: telemedicine, telecommuting, tele-education.
Matt Mead, governor of Wyoming
The GOP platform in 2016 discussed opening more federal lands to state control. Would you like to see more of that?
Mead: We value public lands and open places in Wyoming. And we’re down on revenue as a state because of minerals. If we had, say, half a million acres right now that used to belong to the federal government — well, we’re trying to discover what to do on education, we’re down on revenue, and it wouldn’t be surprising for somebody to say: “Let’s sell half a million acres.” Then once it’s gone, it’s gone. So I think the better thing to do is take this in a cooperative fashion with the federal government, saying, “Let’s identify a block of land, do baseline studies,” and let the state manage that area for a period of, say, 20 years. Because the assumption with all this is that if we had it, we would do it better. If the state was able to do a pilot project, we could test afterward: Is the land better, is the water better, have we done a better job receiving revenue from it?
Rural states like yours are expected to suffer most under health care reform — what would you like to see out of Washington?
Mead: You’ve got to design a system that recognizes that in Wyoming, for a lady to get prenatal care it means jumping in a pickup in January and driving 100 miles. That’s a different experience than living in Los Angeles. We were one of the states that sued on the Affordable Care Act. We lost. Being a pragmatic person, I asked the legislature to expand Medicaid, twice. Two times at bat, two strikeouts. Part of the reason I did that is I believed the ACA was going to be very difficult to unwind. In Wyoming, we have a lot of small hospitals operating on 60 days’ cash, where expansions would have helped.
Given the rise of automation, how are you preparing Wyoming for the future of work?
Mead: We get 70 percent of our economy from minerals. We need to give young people more job opportunities. Not just dig and ship, but how do we develop the expertise here, how do we develop industries, industrial parks where one person’s waste product is another person’s feedstock? We should be a leader in technology because it provides a lot of solutions to a rural state: telemedicine, telecommuting, tele-education. I asked the legislature to support a plan to create a 100-gigabyte backbone that can be used by all our state agencies and schools. It was designed specifically so the private sector could jump onto that.
In a rural state, this connectivity matched with a quality of life is a great opportunity. You can live in a small town in wonderful Wyoming, and you can conduct business anywhere in the world. We can sit by and let robots take our jobs, or we can create jobs to be the ones building the robots, building the software. It was recently expressed to me that data is the new oil. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it’s an important thing for us to think about.