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COVID-19 Could Prove Lethal To Wyoming Energy Economy

in Energy/News
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two stories detailing the struggles of Wyoming’s energy sector in a post-pandemic economy.

Wyoming’s coal, oil and natural gas producers are facing significant losses following the COVID-19 pandemic, a University of Wyoming economist said.

Before the world turned upside down, Rob Godby, director of the Energy Economics and Public Policies Center at the University of Wyoming, helped produce several scenarios for Gov. Mark Gordon detailing the state’s potential energy revenues .

Legislators were taken aback by the dismal scenarios presented. 

Six months later, the scenarios’ worst-case projections look optimistic compared to post-pandemic realities.

“COVID-19 caused a decline in coal that was more than double what we expected,” Godby said. “2019 was the worst year for coal in the last 20. We produced 15% less coal in 2019 than in 2018.” 

Since March, the state has produced about 40% less coal than in 2019, he explained.

Natural Gas

“Prior to Covid-19, the market was flooded with cheap natural gas,” Godby said.

Oil drilling operations in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico were pulling up natural gas as a free byproduct of oil production and selling it on the open market, which made it difficult for natural gas producers in Wyoming to compete because they dealt solely in natural gas. 

In May, Ultra Petroleum Corporation, one of Wyoming’s largest natural gas producers, filed for bankruptcy for a second time in four years.

While some companies continue to pump out natural gas, Godby said the search for new wells is grinding to a halt.

“These companies were not drilling any more, so natural declines were going to happen,” Godby said, explaining natural gas production was previously predicted to decline by 25%.

“COVID-19 hasn’t really changed the rate of decline of natural gas. What has changed is the potential outlook a year or two from now.”

With most of the nation’s natural gas coming from oil drilling operations, the collapse of oil demand worldwide makes it difficult to predict how natural gas producers — especially those who produce only natural gas and not oil — might respond.

“With less natural gas coming on the market as a result of decreased oil production, there is a possibility for natural gas to rebound,” Godby said. “As early as the start of next year, we may see prices rebound.” 

There is uncertainty, however, about whether Wyoming’s producers will be able to weather the downturn long enough to capitalize on increased natural gas demand.

“The firms in the natural gas sector were already in trouble,” Godby said. “But the question is ‘Will they fail completely in the current situation?’”

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Governor, Mayor Express Dismay Over Refinery Job Losses

in Coronavirus/Energy/News
4719

Gov. Mark Gordon and Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr both expressed dismay on Monday over the announcement that 200 HollyFrontier refinery workers in Cheyenne will lose their jobs in the next 12 to 18 months.

HollyFrontier announced Monday it would convert its Cheyenne refinery to a plant to create diesel fuel from soybean oil and cut its workforce by 200 in the process.

Gordon and Orr issued separate statements about the announcement.

“These job losses are real,” Orr said. “And they hurt.”

“The announcement … is a devastating blow to Cheyenne, Laramie County and all of Wyoming,” Gordon said.

HollyFrontier said it no longer considered the refining of petroleum products to be a sustainable business for its Cheyenne refinery. Officials said much of the refinery’s equipment will be used to make the renewable diesel for sale in California and Colorado, while the rest will be idled.

Orr said the announcement is a sign of the reduced demand for fossil fuels.

“It certainly feels as if the hits keep coming,” she said. “This is the world we live in, a world that is moving away from coal and oil and moving towards clean an reliable new energies such as biodiesel.”

Gordon said he asked the state Department of Workforce Services to be ready to help the displaced refinery workers find new jobs and Orr said she also contacted DWS.

“The good news is we have time,” she said. “HollyFrontier isn’t leaving our community and I know they will continue to be good community partners well into the future.”

Cheyenne Refinery To Shift To Renewable Diesel, Cut 200 Workers

in Business/Economy/Energy/Jobs/News
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

HollyFrontier’s Cheyenne Refinery will shift from refining petroleum to producing a diesel fuel made out of soybean oil, the company announced Monday.

HollyFrontier announced in a news release that the conversion from petroleum refining will take 12 to 18 months and by the time the work is completed, about 200 workers will have been released.

The reduction in the refinery’s workforce will occur over a period of time, said Liberty Swift, manager of corporate communications for the company.

“Everyone’s learning today what the plan is so no one would be taken by surprise,” she said. “We’re working with everybody to try to assist them through this process.”

The refinery on the south side of Cheyenne has been processing petroleum for 86 years, according to Mike Jennings, HollyFrontier’s president and chief executive officer.

But Jennings said given the crash in oil prices caused by both oil price wars and the coronavirus, the company did not believe petroleum refining was a sustainable business.

In addition, the company was looking at high operating and maintenance costs related to the refinery over the next three to five years, he said.

Swift said there is a growing demand for diesel fuel made from renewable resources, particularly in California, but also in Colorado.

The Cheyenne refinery was well-suited for the conversion because some of the equipment already in place can be used to produce the renewable diesel, she added.

Any equipment not used in the production of renewable diesel will be idled, Swift said.

The conversion process is expected to cost about $125 million to $175 million, the company said.

When the work is finished, about 80 employees will remain at the refinery.

The company will work where possible to put employees removed from the refinery to work at other HollyFrontier plants, Swift said.

She added the company wants to continue working with Cheyenne as it has in the past.

“We want to continue to be in the Cheyenne community and want to continue to be a strong community partner,” she said. “This is a way we can stay in the community.”

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Minerals Industry Recovery From Pandemic Will Be Long Process

in Coronavirus/Energy/News
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The closure of businesses across the state has led to a drop in demand for energy, resulting in a downturn for much of Wyoming’s energy industry, industry representatives said Friday.

During Town Square Media’s “Economy Town Hall” on Friday morning, Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, and Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, agreed the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on their industries.

Obermueller noted that there wouldn’t be one single moment when miners, oil rig workers and other industry employees would head back to work, but that recovery would be a “long-term process.”

“When people start driving and flying again, we’ll get the demand back,” Obermueller said. “It’s a demand issue right now and until that comes back, oil and gas in Wyoming won’t come back.”

Deti agreed, adding that the Wyoming coal industry has been on a downward trend for a few years due to competition with low-cost natural gas and other alternative forms of energy. But with much of Wyoming’s businesses being shut down, there has also been a decline in demand for coal.

The WMA executive director wouldn’t speculate about whether or not the coal industry in Wyoming would see long-term effects from the virus, but felt the situation would ultimately “get better.”

The two men also discussed how federal and state social distancing guidelines would change the way miners and oil riggers would work.

Obermueller noted that for the most part, employees on drilling rigs are usually physically distant, but for Wyoming miners, the situation has been a little different because they work nearer each other.

“We’re essential, so we have to keep operations up and running,” Deti said. “We have to provide appropriate work conditions for our employees to be safe, so we’ve put restrictions on vendors and visitors to the sites. Certain sites are implementing temperature checks. All of the operators are taking appropriate steps.”

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Gordon: Energy Decrease Catastrophic For Wyoming; “Country Needs to Get Back to Work”

in Coronavirus/Energy/News
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A lengthy recovery in the price of oil will be needed to return Wyoming’s oil production to where it was before the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Mark Gordon said Friday.

Gordon, speaking during Town Square Media’s “Economy Town Hall” broadcast on the company’s Wyoming radio stations, said a rise in the price of oil alone will not be sufficient to sustain a recovery of the industry.

“It is going to take a serious recovery on two fronts to make that work,” he said. “One is it has to recover price to get back to where it’s economic in Wyoming to produce and then it has to stay there for some time because a lot of companies are idling their rigs. Those rigs don’t go back up with just a click of the fingers.”

Oil prices have declined significantly in recent weeks due to a decline in demand for energy with the coronavirus pandemic and an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

At least part of the problem could be solved with the resumption of normal business activities in the country, Gordon said.

“The demand destruction has just been catastrophic,” he said. “People aren’t flying. People aren’t using electricity like they used to. We’ve got to get this country back working again.”

The state’s role will be to make sure Wyoming’s mineral industry is ready to meet that demand once things return to normal, he said.

“Today I’m going to be talking about the things we can do to try to stimulate our economy to make sure we have all the oilfield service companies, the miners … available so when our economy does rebound, which it will, that we’re ready to be right in the lead.”

The Legislature is expected to meet in special session later this year to address how to spend $1.25 billion in funds received from federal aid programs and how to adjust the budget its members approved in March to compensate for an anticipated drop in mineral revenue.

Gordon has already ordered state departments to freeze hiring and the issuing of contracts and has asked department heads to look at ways to cut their spending, although exact income cuts are not yet known.

“Unfortunately, we won’t really know the impact of this quarter for a while yet,” he said. “Probably around May 20, we will see numbers that will make our eyes pop. I think it does mean we’ve got to re-examine our budget pretty substantially.”

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Why Aren’t Wyoming’s Gas Prices Lower?

in Energy/News
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As oil prices plummet worldwide, the price of gasoline at the pump in Wyoming is following a similar trajectory across the nation, albeit not as dramatically. 

“I call it the rocket-feather effect,” said Rob Godby, a University of Wyoming energy economist. “Gasoline prices go up like rockets and fall like feathers.” 

Wyoming’s average price for a gallon of regular gasoline as of Wednesday, April 1, was about $2.17, not quite 20 cents higher than the national average of about $1.98, according to AAA’s gas map at gasprices.aaa.com.

GasBuddy’s price map, at gasbuddy.com, displays a more detailed summary of national gasoline prices, but both maps show the same thing — west of Wyoming, gas is more expensive, and for the most part, gas to the east is cheaper.

The price a consumer pays at the pump is affected by numerous factors — from the price of oil per barrel to the distance between gas stations — but for the sake of brevity, Godby, the director for UW’s Energy Economics and Public Policies Center and a college of business associate professor, boiled it down to three factors: the regional taxes or additive requirements at play, a pump’s proximity to large clusters of oil refineries and demand in an area.

“Typically the West Coast is more expensive than the rest of the country, because it’s more difficult to get oil there,” Godby explained. “And, the lowest prices for gasoline are in the Gulf states to the Southeast. That’s simply because that’s where all the gas is made.”

Hawaii boasts the nation’s highest gasoline prices with an average of about $3.35 per gallon, and California comes in second at about $3.02 per gallon. 

Gas prices around the Gulf are lower than much of the nation, but the lowest prices are in Wisconsin with an average of $1.53 per gallon and Oklahoma at about $1.54 per gallon.

While Wyoming is home to a number of petroleum refineries, the lack of demand can inflate pump prices. What Wyoming has in oil assets, it lacks in population. Fewer people attracts less competition, allowing gasoline providers to keep their prices higher for longer.

“In a small town in Wyoming with only one gas station, you’re not competing against anybody,” Godby said. “So, why lower the price?” 

Ultimately, gas stations are forced to reduce prices at pumps near neighboring towns to remain competitive, but Wyoming’s gas trends trail the national average.

“Wyoming’s holdout can’t last forever,” Godby said.

Rocky Mountain Power Asks for Residential Rate Increase

in Energy/News
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Rocky Mountain Power is seeking state approval for a rate increase that would boost residential energy prices by 4.7 percent while providing a 0.8 percent rate cut for its industrial customers, it announced Tuesday.

The company, Wyoming’s largest energy provider, said in a news release it will use much of the extra income from its first rate increase in five years to finance its renewable energy initiatives.

“That’s the direction our customers are asking for,” spokesman Spencer Hall said in an interview. “As a company, we’ve made it clear there are huge benefits to providing power from no-fuel-cost sources.”

If approved by the Wyoming Public Service Commission, the rate increase would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

Under the proposal, the costs for residential users would increase by an average of $3.69 per month, Rocky Mountain Power’s news release said.

The cost for commercial users would go up by 4.1 percent, while rates for industrial users would drop by 0.8 percent.

The decline for industrial users is based on the fact that power consumption by such users is easy to predict, Hall said.

“Supplying always-on industrial users is one thing, we know pretty much what the usage will be,” Hall said. “Commercial customers come in, turn on their lights, do work and go home at night. It’s more volatile.”

The added revenue from the rate increase will cover implementation of the company’s “Vision 2020” renewable energy initiative, as well as the refurbishment of wind turbines at the company’s Foote Creek Wind Farm near Arlington. Other items to be paid for with the increase will include the conversion of a coal-fired energy plant near Kemmerer to burn natural gas and the installation of catalytic reduction equipment on some power generating units.

The changes will help Wyoming stay in the forefront of the energy industry, Hall said.

“Its a great opportunity for Wyoming as the industry changes and moves away from coal,” he said. “We want Wyomign to continue to be the center of the energy exporting world.”

The company’s news release noted Rocky Mountain Power has invested in its Wyoming operations for the last five years without asking for a rate increase. It also said Rocky Mountain Power’s average electric rate is 10 percent lower than the average price in Wyoming and 34 percent lower than the national average.

Rocky Mountain Power provides electric service to more than 146,000 customers in the state. It is part of PacifiCorp, which serves more than 1.9 million customers in six states.

Gordon Slams FTC Attempt To Block Joint Coal Venture

in Energy/News
Mark Gordon file photo
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An attempt by a federal agency to block a joint venture between two major coal companies was criticized by Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday as “wrongheaded.”

Gordon’s comments came in response to the Federal Trade Commission’s decision to file an administrative complaint challenging the joint venture between Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal.

“I believe this complaint by the Federal Trade Commission is a wrongheaded attempt to drive a nail into an industry which is struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace,” he said. “It could also result in significant impacts to the workforce of the North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder coal mines.”

The two companies announced last summer they would merge their assets in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and in Colorado. The move was seen as a way to allow both companies to better compete in the ailing coal industry.

The FTC, in its complaint, alleges the transaction will eliminate competition between the two companies and lead to higher coal prices for power utilities and ultimately, energy consumers.

But Gordon said the complaint does not take into account the competitive forces already at work in the energy sector.

“Today’s energy marketplace is broad and includes wind, solar, natural gas, hydroelectric and geothermal, all of which have become more competitive since 2018,” he said. “The FTC appears to have ignored this fact and seems intent on extending the uncertainty facing coal companies in the Powder River Basin. I don’t believe the broader energy marketplace will benefit from a challenge to this merger.”

Natural Gas Faces Difficulties as Market is Flooded with Cheap Product

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Jonah Field
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A victim of its own success, Wyoming’s natural gas industry has faced plummeting prices in recent years, leaving only one operator with active rigs in the state, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) reported.

“There are 23 active rigs in the state, and of those only two are natural gas,” said PAW Communications Director Ryan McConnaughey. “There are a lot factors impacting natural gas, but a big one is sustained low prices.”

More than a decade ago, natural gas experienced a surge in popularity with the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that boosted production, but a University of Wyoming researcher said the mining process was almost too successful.

“In the last decade, we’ve become so good at getting oil and gas out of the ground through unconventional methods — fracking and horizontal drilling,” said Rob Godby, the director for UW’s Energy Economics and Public Policies Center and an associate professor for the College of Business. “Prices have fallen through the floor. There’s just too much natural gas on the market.”

In 2008, national natural gas prices were around $7 per 1,000 cubic feet (MCF), Godby said. The price as of Wednesday was $1.77 per MCF.

“It’s only gone one direction, which is down,” he said. “The other thing that’s scary about that price is we’re in the middle of winter, and if you’re going to have a coldest month, it’s February.” 

As energy companies switch over to renewable power sources for electricity generation, natural gas and coal have stepped into backup roles to ensure the lights stay on during major winter storms. Previously, natural gas prices spiked to around $150 per MCF during these events, but Godby said those instances are becoming less frequent.

“In real terms, taking inflation into account, we’re essentially at the lowest point in gas sales history,” he said. “Operators are having a very hard time making money with natural gas.”

Permian Basin 

The hydraulic fracturing process is not selective, so when oil operators frack, they often capture natural gas as a free and marketable byproduct, Godby explained.

“People often think of oil and gas drilling as a jelly donut, and operators are trying to get that jelly out,” he said, crediting the analogy to Mark Watson, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director. “But, it’s really like Tiramisu.”

Operators horizontally drill through layers of rock containing oil and gas, then pressurize the hole with water and other additives, which fractures the rock and releases both oil and gas.

“In the last year or so, the U.S. just became the largest producer of oil, and all that oil growth brings with it a lot of natural gas,” Godby said. “And the most prolific field where this is happening is in the Permian Basin on the eastern half of New Mexico and Western side of Texas.”

Natural gas producers in Wyoming are typically producing only natural gas while competing with oil producers, whose get their natural gas essentially free.

Further complicating the situation, McConnaughey said Wyoming’s tax on natural gas is higher than New Mexico’s.

“Wyoming’s tax rate on energy production is not competitive with our peers,” he said. “It’s typically about 4 percent more than other states, and New Mexico takes 4.5 percent less than Wyoming does.”

Coronavirus

With less extraction comes less revenue for the state, a major challenge when considering mineral revenues paid for more than 50 percent of the state’s budget in 2017, the Wyoming Taxpayer’s Association reported.

Coal’s decline is well documented in Wyoming, but Godby said natural gas is not far behind.

Since 2015, Wyoming’s projected natural gas production declined by 18 percent, and natural gas severance tax payments have dropped 19 percent, UW documents state.

“Our economy has gone from riding a tricycle with coal, natural gas and oil to a bicycle with natural gas and oil, and now,” Godby said, “we’re down to riding a unicycle with oil, which is the most volatile of the three.”

Oil production is projected to increase 14 percent from levels in 2015, bringing the state a 9 percent increase in oil severance tax, but that income might not be reliable, he said.

“Oil production could rise and offset some of the declines,” Godby said. “The problem is oil is still the most difficult commodity to forecast for, and as the transportation industry moves away from fossil fuels in the future, it will become even more volatile.”

China is one of the two largest oil consumers in the world, and the coronavirus epidemic has “slowed their economy to a crawl,” decreasing their energy demand, Godby said.

“This is why gas prices at the pump are so low,” he explained. “Oil prices right now are really low, because demand has dropped.”

Industry Leader: Wyoming Uranium Industry on ‘Its Death Bed’

in Energy/News
Uranium
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A potential addition to President Donald Trump’s budget for the purchase of domestic uranium might not be enough to save Wyoming’s uranium mining operations, an industry leader said.

“The uranium market has been extremely depressed for a number of years,” said John Cash, Ur-Energy’s vice president of regulatory affairs. “So much so that is not profitable to sell into that market at this point.”

After speaking with White House adviser Larry Kudlow, Gov. Mark Gordon recently announced the president is slated to add $150 million to his budget for replenishing the nation’s military supply of uranium.

But Cash said even if the funds were approved, new uranium enrichment facilities would need to be built, which could take up to 10 years — precious time the industry might not have.

“The uranium industry is on its death bed,” said Cash, whose company operates a uranium mine in south-central Wyoming. “We’re already shutting down most everything. We can’t wait any longer.”

Domestic market

Wyoming leads the nation in uranium production with about 665,000 pounds produced in 2018, which was about 78 percent of America’s production, the Wyoming Mining Association (WMA) reported.

Unfortunately, Cash said that production was down to about 200,000 pounds in 2019.

“At one time, the U.S. produced 30 million pounds of uranium a year,” he said.

RELATED: Wyoming radio personality Glenn Woods explores former uranium town Jeffrey City

Humans have used uranium for centuries in products such as paint pigments, but today, most uranium is used to generate electricity at nuclear power plants. 

Militaries use uranium to create high-density, armor-piercing projectiles, armor plating for tanks and to power naval vessels. 

On the civilian side, uranium radioisotopes are used in smoke detectors and ballasts for yachts and airplanes, according to the WMA. 

The U.S. is home to 98 nuclear power reactors and houses the world’s largest fleet of nuclear-powered naval vessels, but Cash said the nation doesn’t produce enough uranium to power even one nuclear reactor for more than a few months.

“America’s nuclear reactors consume about 50 million pounds of uranium each year,” he said. “Each one of those requires about 500,000 pounds of uranium a year to operate.”

Flooding the market

Uranium is most commonly sold as the compound U3O8 and fetches about $25 a pound on the global market, WMA Executive Director Travis Deti said. 

“The problem is a pound costs about $35 to $45 to produce here in Wyoming,” Deti explained. “Countries like Russia, China and Kazakhstan have basically flooded the market with cheap uranium, because they don’t have the same regulations American companies do, and their operations are heavily subsidized by their governments. They’ve effectively driven the U.S. out of the domestic market.”

Further complicating the issue is the fact the uranium potentially purchased for military use by the U.S. if Trump’s budget addition is funded would need to be converted and enriched. 

“It all starts off the same when we mine it and process it into yellowcake, or U3O8,” Cash said. “From there it has to be converted into UF6 uranium hexaflouride. The U.S. has only one conversion facility in Metropolis, Illinois. And that facility shut down in 2017.”

After conversion, the uranium is enriched to increase its concentration of the isotope uranium-235, needed to sustain a chain reaction. 

The natural concentration of uranium-235 in ore is usually less than 1 percent.

For commercial nuclear reactors, the uranium-235 content needs to be about 4.5 percent, for military applications, it needs to be above 90 percent.

“We have no domestic enrichment facilities anymore,” Cash said. “At this point, we have no physical structure (in the U.S.) to enrich uranium for our military.”

One uranium enrichment facility does exist in New Mexico, but it is owned by foreign governments, which are legally prohibited from enriching uranium for U.S. military uses, Cash explained.

“The story is there is effectively no uranium mining in the U.S. — the numbers in 2020 will be near zero — our one conversion plant is shut down and we have no enrichment facilities at all,” he said. “Our ability to supply our military or nuclear power plant fleet domestically is gone.” 

Congressional efforts

In 2018, Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels, another uranium producer, asked the U.S. Commerce Department to investigate the effects of foreign-owned firms’ uranium imports on America’s national security.

In support of the request, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso led congressional efforts to press for the investigation, a spokesman for a Senate committee said in an email.

When the Commerce Department determined the imports did pose a threat to national security, President Trump created the Nuclear Fuel Working Group to look into uranium producers and the nuclear energy industry.

Serving as chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Barrasso was among several Republican senators who sent a letter to Kudlow calling for the Nuclear Fuel Working Group to help America’s uranium producers, EPW Communications Director Mike Danylak wrote.

“Barrasso has been personally engaged with the White House throughout the Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s process to highlight the important role uranium mining plays in Wyoming,” Danylak said. “Maintaining a vibrant American uranium industry is a critical economic issue in Wyoming and a vital national and energy security issue for our entire country.”

With help from Barrasso and the Trump administration, uranium could make a comeback, but Cash said the industry will need time.

“At $150 million a year, that could support about 2.5 million pounds of uranium production annually,” he said. “It’s likely Wyoming mines would get a pretty good percentage of that.”

But with no conversion or enrichment facilities available, the U.S. would need to purchase and store the uranium.

“I think what would happen is the conversion facility would be incentivized to open back up and convert the uranium, so it could be stored,” Cash speculated. “And it would need to be stored until an enrichment facility could be built.”

Without the revenue from annual purchases, Cash said the U.S. uranium industry would collapse before an enrichment facility could be built. 

Deti said the president’s budget addition could revive Wyoming’s uranium operations, but nothing is set in stone.

“We haven’t passed a budget in this country for years,” he explained. “Where the rubber hits the road is whether Congress authorizes and appropriates the money. It’s a good step in the right direction, but we’ll have to see if Congress follows up.”

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