A divided Wyoming citizen panel on Monday granted a seventh permit extension in 16 years for a power plant in the Powder River Basin that was first proposed in 1996 and has yet to be built.
A majority of the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council voiced skepticism about the $800 million Two Elk Energy Park outside Wright in the Powder River Basin. Even so, the council voted 4-2 to amend the project's permit. Under the change, work would resume in January 2014 and wrap up in 2016.
Two Elk originally was supposed to begin generating electricity in 1999, but all that's been built since it got its first industrial siting permit in 1997 is a storage building and part of the plant's foundation.
Lack of financing has been the project's biggest hang-up. Though the power plant got help from $445 million in municipal bonds over the years, Two Elk's developer, Greenwood Village, Colo.-based North American Power Group, is still seeking an investor.
Two council members opposed the latest extension, but other members said the council's authority is limited to managing any socio-economic or environmental disruption to nearby communities. Second-guessing whether the plant will be built, said those who voted for the extension, is not within the council's purview.
"In my mind, folks, there's a lot of ancillary discussion going on," said council Chairman Shawn Warner, of Powell. "I can find no socio-economic impacts that are negative."
The Industrial Siting Council dates to the 1970s and traces its origins to the strains on police and other local services that an invasion of workers at booming coal mines caused in northeast Wyoming — in the same area as the Two Elk site a couple miles from Arch Coal's enormous Black Thunder mine.
Council member Jim Miller, of Sundance, described himself as supportive of coal-fired electricity but said Two Elk's delays may well have caused socio-economic harm. Other power plant operators in the region might be trying to plan for when and if Two Elk will begin generating electricity, he suggested.
"How many more years are we going to face these extensions?" Miller said. "We need this power plant online. We needed it online 15 years ago."
Miller and Sandy Shuptrine, of Jackson, voted against the permit extension.
Newcastle City Engineer Bob Hartley and Doug Thomas, a representative of the Wyoming Building and Construction Trades Council, spoke in favor of the project. Two Elk's developers seem to be exercising "due diligence" toward creating jobs in the Wright area, Thomas said.
"After this project is built, it will put a lot of people to work," Thomas told the council.
Nobody at the meeting testified that the project presented any socio-economic or environmental concerns, noted the attorney for the project, state Rep. Mary Throne, of Cheyenne. The council had no legal authority to deny the extension, she told its members.
Council member John Corra, of Cheyenne, who retired last fall as director of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, questioned whether North American Power Group would get an investor in time to resume construction early next year.
Also skeptical was Richard O'Gara, an economist from Cheyenne.
"I haven't heard anything here this morning that tells me it's going to happen," O'Gara said.
Corra and O'Gara nonetheless voted for the permit extension, as did council member Peter Brandjord, of Green River, and Warner, the council chairman.