COGs a-grinding to save wind turbines

 


Government officials representing every corner of South Central Wyoming gathered in Riverside July 20, from Melodie Seilaff of the Dixon Town Council to Jerry Paxton, Wyoming State Representative for House District 47, as well as all five Carbon County Commissioners.

The group of about 35 represented high turnout for the bimonthly meeting of Carbon County Council of Governments (COGs), and the headline item on their agenda was a resolution opposing increased taxation rates for wind power. COGs passed the resolution unanimously after about 40 minutes of discussion.

The Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) has spent much of the last decade laying the groundwork for what would be one of the world’s largest wind energy developments. PCW plans on installing the approximately 1,000 turbine Chokecherry Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project (CCSMP) at two sites south of Rawlins.

At the COGs meeting, however, PCW communications director Kara Choquette and PCW General Counsel and Vice President Roxane Perruso told the assembled officials that PCW’s extensive planning and investment in Carbon County may yet be for naught. With Cheyenne scrambling for new revenue streams because of declines in coal, oil and gas markets, increasing the state wind energy excise tax has been under consideration. Any rate increase could endanger the economic viability of the project, especially in light of advances in turbine technology that allow marginally productive regions to compete with Wyoming’s gustier climes, Choquette said.


Currently, Wyoming is the only state to impose a wind power excise tax of $1 per megawatt hour of power generated. The Wyoming Legislature’s Interim Joint Revenue Committee will be meeting in Buffalo September 22 and 23 to vote on whether a rate increase on that excise tax should be considered by the full state legislature.

Among COG members, there was little dispute over the devastation a pullout by PCW could inflict on Carbon County’s already faltering economy. Instead, discussion at the meeting centered around strategies for mobilizing resistance to the proposed tax hike.

Carbon County Economic Development (CCED) Corporation President Gary Conatser informed attendees that the CCED was arranging free transport from Rawlins to Buffalo for those who wish to attend the Joint Revenue Committee meeting. In addition to local officials, Conatser said the CCED was promoting the free shuttle to business owners and investors who could be negatively impacted by the loss of the wind farm.

Rep. Paxton said a strong showing from those opposed to the tax increase could tilt the scales in Buffalo, and that a bill would be easier to stop there before it reaches the full house. “The best way to get it shot down is at the committee level,” Paxton said, citing his legislative experience. COGs voted to move their next meeting back a week, to Sept. 14, to make it easier for members to make the trip to Buffalo.

Dispatching Choquette and Perusso to the July 20 COG’s meeting was just one component of PCW’s full-court-press opposing the rate hike. The two presented to the municipal governments in Rawlins, Saratoga, Sinclair, Medicine Bow and in a joint presentation to Baggs and Dixon. They have also presented to the Board of Carbon County Commissioners and the CCED on the recent tax issue, and have represented PCW at 65 public meetings over the last eight years.

A database compiled by the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office shows that PCW has three lobbyists working out of Cheyenne. Counting Choquette and Perusso, PCW also has three Denver-based lobbyists. Choquette said the company has contacted six of the 14 legislators on the revenue committee and planned to sit down with the rest before the September meeting.

The language of the COGs resolution opposing a tax increase came from Amy Bach, City Attorney for Rawlins. The Rawlins Town Council asked Bach to draft an early version of the resolution to present to the Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM) at a meeting June 8. WAM passed Bach’s resolution, and then a more detailed version of the resolution was passed by town councils of Saratoga, Rawlins and Hanna in the lead up to the July 20 COGs meeting. The revised resolution was also passed by the Carbon County Commissioners, and the CCED referenced it in a letter they sent to the Interim Joint Revenue Committee. Town councils in Sinclair and Encampment are currently considering passing the resolution as well, Bach said.

Over the course of three pages, the resolution laid out the number of operations jobs the CCSMP is expected to create (114) and the expected amount PCW is expected to contribute to state and local coffers over its projected 20 year life span ($800 million). The $800 million would come from a combination of the state sales and use tax, the existing wind excise tax and property taxes, as calculated using records on file with several different state and federal agencies.

Legislators will soon have to decide whether increasing this tax burden would help fund government services in a time of fiscal crisis or drive a business out of the area just before it begins making substantial contributions to the Wyoming treasury.

This story has been edited from the original version posted on July 27 to clarify that Kara Choquette and Roxanne Perusso have attended 65 public meetings on PCW’s behalf over the past eight years. Only recent meetings with the Board of Carbon County Commissioners, the City of Rawlins, the Town of Saratoga, the Town of Sinclair and COGs concerned the increase in the wind power excise tax.

 

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