Wyoming’s coal-fired economy is coming to an end

The state faces a future without an industry that’s been very good to it.

 

As I approached Gillette, Wyoming, on a cold and grungy March day in 2011, I expected to find the stereotypical Western extraction-reliant town, stuck in the boom-bust cycle, a place where transient workers lived in trailer parks and man camps, the schools were overflowing, and the social fabric and infrastructure were stretched to the breaking point.

So I was rather surprised to roll into a town that felt more suburban Denver than high-plains boomtown. Instead of rowdy bars, there were strip malls and chain restaurants and a spanking-new recreation center. Instead of man camps, I found a residential neighborhood with well-tended homes, boats and RVs in the driveways, and, as the census data would later tell me, a median household income of $101,000. I saw so many Hummers that it was as if the ungainly SUVs had all migrated to this one county to sit out the financial crisis that was still bedeviling the rest of America.

Over the years, Gillette has been an oil town, a natural gas town and even a uranium town, but somehow it had managed to smooth out the wild ups and downs that usually plague boom-bust communities. Ironically, it was yet another fossil fuel that provided the economic padding: coal. Gillette sits in the heart of the Powder River Basin, where massive mines furnish nearly half of all the coal burned for electricity in the United States. Coal-fired power plants are often touted for their ability to churn out electricity at a steady rate rather than erratically and unpredictably. The data show that coal can behave similarly on an economic level, providing a stable financial foundation upon which a community can grow.

But now that foundation is eroding. The coal industry is fading, giant corporations, from Peabody to Westmoreland, are going bankrupt, and hundreds of  Wyoming miners have lost their jobs. After a half-century of coal-fired stability, Gillette — and Wyoming at large — are facing a future without the industry that’s been so good to them.

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WYOMING'S CURRENT RELATIONSHIP with the coal industry started in the 1970s. Large, centralized coal-fired power plants sprouted across the Interior West to send power to faraway population centers, and energy crises spurred efforts to acquire more power domestically, leading to con-temporaneous uranium, oil and natural gas booms. Miners and roughnecks followed the drill rigs and the draglines, pouring into once-sleepy towns, from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Farmington, New Mexico, and Jeffrey City, Wyoming. Campbell County, home of Gillette, doubled in population that decade. Trailer parks, man camps and shoddily built apartment buildings sprouted in fields and orchards.

The population explosion and the ephemeral nature of the booms had some unfortunate side effects: increased crime, overcrowded schools and stressed infrastructure. These issues were so rampant in Gillette in 1974 that ElDean Kohrs, then-executive director of the Wyoming Counseling Center, gave it a name: Gillette Syndrome.

Then, in the mid-1980s, a combination of federal policy shifts and geopolitical forces caused the price of oil, natural gas and uranium to crash, busting those industries. But Wyoming’s coal industry stayed afloat. And even when towns that were crowded and thriving a decade earlier shrank, their economies gutted, Campbell County survived: Gillette still suffered, but the population held steady, and within a few years, employment at the coal mines was shooting upward once again.

Coal had become the number-one fuel for generating electricity in the U.S., and Wyoming had become the top producer of coal. That tied the economy of Gillette — and Wyoming as a whole — directly to Americans’ collective demand for electricity, which showed no signs of slowing.

For four decades, coal production climbed, providing a steady revenue stream for Wyoming state coffers and insulating the state and communities from the shocks of successive oil and gas booms and busts. In some ways, coal has helped Gillette and Wyoming grow out of Gillette Syndrome: The county has an aquatic center, a 7,000-square-foot science center and nice public libraries; school classes are held in fancy new facilities rather than trailers, as Kohrs feared; and Wyoming pays its teachers better than any neighboring state — all without a state income tax.

BUT NOW WYOMING IS GOING to have to reckon with a new economic syndrome: The long, slow death of coal. Cheap natural gas, wind and solar power have knocked coal from its perch atop the U.S. power mix, and the economic effects are rippling back to the mines of the Powder River Basin in a big way. The Trump administration’s attempts to revive the industry by rolling back environmental rules and meddling in the electricity markets have failed. Utilities are retiring and demolishing old coal plants — diminishing chances of a comeback — at a pace that has not slowed, and several large plants fed by Wyoming coal are slated to go dark in the next decade.

Wyoming’s leaders now have no choice but to quit their coal habit. But replacing the industry will not be easy. They will need to figure out how to capture more revenue from other sources, such as tourism, as well as how to use the cash from oil and gas to diversify the economy. Wind power production in the state — which, like coal, is taxed — has the potential to provide the same stabilizing financial influence, but it will need to grow tremendously to do so. Officials may need to institute an income tax that will require the billionaires of Jackson to pay their fair share. And, in the end, the state simply might have to learn to do with less.

Gillette, meanwhile, is still bustling. About 10% of the county’s population works in the mines, and though the median income hasn’t gone up since I visited years ago, it also hasn’t plummeted. And maybe it never will. Perhaps Gillette will be able to leverage the amenities coal has brought to build a new economy and a new identity. But one thing is almost certain: The gaping mines of the Powder River Basin will diminish, if not disappear.  

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey; Sources: Income, U.S. Census Bureau; teacher salary, National Education Association; severance & bonuses, Wyoming Department of Revenue and Consensus Revenue Estimating Group (CREG); coal production and employment, Wyoming Mining Association, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and U.S. Energy Information Administration; CO2 emitted, Environmental Protection Agency; Coal export map, Kurt Menke/GISP Birds eye view

Machinery in the open-pit Wyodak coal mine outside Gillette, Wyo. in the Powder River Basin.
Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress