By Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile.com
A troubling turn of events has befallen Wyoming and its bedrock industry.
Here, the rolling plains are dotted with some of the most significant coal properties in the nation — including several of the country’s top-10 producing mines. The Powder River Basin produces an astounding 43 percent of the nation’s coal — an arrangement that has brought handsome revenues to the state and thousands of stable, well-paying jobs to its residents.
But the tide is turning. A mix of regulations, an abundant supply of cheap natural gas, new solar and wind energy projects and changing utility customer preferences have sparked a transition away from coal, and the industry has taken a hit. Across Wyoming over the last six months, power plants have shut down, mines have been abruptly shuttered and major coal operators have declared bankruptcy.
The implications will be far-reaching for a state that has long prided itself on powering the nation as “the Saudi Arabia of coal.” Not only for the hundreds of miners who have lost their jobs, but for the communities that have long relied on coal to fuel their economies, and for state government coffers. Coal has been a significant source of tax revenue for Wyoming, helping to fund public schools and services and keeping taxes on the general population low. Today, Wyoming collects half a billion dollars less from coal sources than it did during the peak a decade ago.
So what’s next for Wyoming coal? Nobody seems to have that answer. But one thing is for sure: An undercurrent of uncertainty runs through the state as the many people who depend on the industry — for paychecks, ancillary business profits, growing populations, municipal revenues and more — are in the dark about the about its future.
Much of these bedrock changes, and the subsequent attention of state media and politicians, has been on the Powder River Basin coal mines this summer, given the wild twists of Blackjewel’s catastrophic bankruptcy. But Gillette isn’t the state’s only coal town. Outside Rock Springs, an entire coal system — utility company, coal mines and power plant — are piled on top of each other in a symbiotic cluster at the Jim Bridger Plant.
To better understand the fate of the industry and how it will affect Wyoming, WyoFile reporters Andrew Graham and Angus M. Thuermer, Jr. recently visited the aging coal complex, which is carved into the scrubby sagelands near I-80 in the southwest corner of the state. There, they ventured deep underground to witness the extrication of a massive coal seam; talked to miners and nearby residents about the industry’s role in the economy and their lives; examined the workings of the massive power plant; spoke with political leaders about their constituents’ worries; toured reclaimed mine land; and learned how the complexities of modern market demands and advancements in technologies inform decision making in distant corporate offices — not always to the benefit of coal facilities like Jim Bridger.
The result of their reporting is WyoFile’s special edition, “Powering Down.” In this package, we examine the status and future of coal through the lens of a region that has long depended on it as an economic engine and cultural touchstone. We hear from people who have built their lives around coal mining and engineering. We break down the little-understood mechanisms of removing the resource from deep in the earth, and explore how faraway market demands can steer the fate of a Wyoming community. And through it, we investigate the viability of the industry in a world that seems to be moving away from it.
Because as Graham reports, on the heels of a year of upheaval, the next shoe could drop here for Wyoming’s coal industry.