Wyoming’s ‘dark money’ coal campaign

The Rockport Generating Station in Indiana. In 2014, the Center for Public Integrity called it one of the nation’s 22 “Super Polluters.” Today, Wyoming is paying an advocacy group that doesn’t have to disclose its donors to try and keep it open. (Thomas Hughes/Wikimedia Commons)


By Andrew Graham and Cooper McKim, WyoFile

At a Sep. 3 press conference, Gov. Mark Gordon introduced a nonprofit that’s been advocating for Wyoming’s coal industry for years: the Energy Policy Network. He announced a new contract with the group in which taxpayers would “contribute” $250,000 this year.

The governor believes there’s still a place for Wyoming’s coal in the electric utility market despite the long and accelerating shift toward renewable sources and natural gas.

“We face the challenge that many other states’ public service commissions, unfortunately, don’t see it that way,” Gordon said.

That’s where the Energy Policy Network comes in.

In as many as nine states EPN, a nonprofit, has campaigned to keep power plants burning Wyoming coal. State officials say EPN has preserved $38.5 million in tax revenue a year by extending the lives of coal plants. Taxpayers’ new donation to EPN will save the state millions more, they argue.

“Extending the life of coal is a wise investment for Wyoming, wise investment for the globe,” Gordon said.

When it comes to the state’s investment in EPN, however, some question the ethics of Wyoming handing taxpayer dollars to a coal advocacy group without direct control over how that money is spent.

With Wyoming as its single biggest funder, the nonprofit forms local groups in other states with names like the Arkansas Affordable Energy Coalition or the Indiana Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Electricity. But if residents in those states know Wyoming’s money is behind such groups, it’s likely through the work of journalists or watchdog organizations.

“Wyoming has never been shy about its involvement,” Jason Begger, the deputy director of the Wyoming Energy Authority, said. “But [the state] certainly has never given EPN the OK to talk about its relationship with Wyoming. Due to [EPN’s] classification, I don’t believe they do need to disclose their donors. So, they don’t.”

Jason Begger

Jason Begger, on the right, at a committee meeting during the 2020 session of the Wyoming Legislature. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

EPN is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and such organizations aren’t in fact required to disclose their funders to the public. In modern politics, the designation is often derided as “dark money.” Corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers have used 501(c)(4)s to cloak involvement in political and regulatory affairs.

The classification’s association with a state government, however, is more novel.

Local and national transparency advocates call the idea of taxpayer dollars funding such political maneuvering troubling.

“This is the first time that someone has said that a state itself — as in one of the 50 states — is the source of dark money spending. So, this is a new one for me,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Stetson University professor and expert on money in politics.

“It is a little bit troubling that one state might use the subterfuge of dark money to compete with its sister states in a way that is not above board,” she said.

For EPN’s proponents, first in the Mead administration and now in Gordon’s, the group’s work is not only justified but critical.

Is it unusual? Maybe so, but these are certainly unusual times. And these are important times for Wyoming,” Randall Luthi, Gordon’s chief energy advisor, said.

An investigation by Wyoming Public Media and WyoFile explores the tactics, and ethics, of the 501(c)(4) two Wyoming governors have now backed in their attempts to save coal. Internal communications, regulatory filings and interviews illustrate a lightly staffed but wide-ranging effort to keep Wyoming coal burning.

‘Invest in the fight.’

Kelly Mader, a Sheridan native who served in the Wyoming House and Senate during the 1980s, founded EPN in 2015.

“Kelly felt like, and I guess the state felt as well, that there should be someone out there protecting the market in the coal consuming states,” EPN’s CEO Randy Eminger said. Mader died in the summer of 2016. Eminger, a former D.C. lobbyist, took the group’s helm.

To prospective funders, Mader pitched EPN as a counter to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Left-leaning billionaires and foundations have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the Sierra Club, itself a 501(c)(4).

Beyond Coal Graphic

The Sierra Club maintains this counter on the webpage of its “Beyond Coal” campaign to demonstrate its successes, and…

Read More: Wyoming’s ‘dark money’ coal campaign

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