You can’t overestimate how more than 40 years of coal-fueled prosperity has shaped Wyoming’s culture and politics. One result is the bitterness that many in the state express when they talk about coal’s demise.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, in his State of the State address, summoned both the swagger and the fury that characterizes the coal narrative today: “We produce better energy more safely and with more attention to the environment than anywhere else on the planet. And yet our industries are still discriminated against, maligned and decried as dead. Well, not on my watch!”
What some in Wyoming might consider discrimination, others might cite fighting for their lives in the face of sea-level rise and deadly wildfires. Still, Wyoming is mourning a real loss and you can hear it expressed in a coffee shop in Gillette or the state capitol in Cheyenne.
The mourning is for an industry that paid the state’s bills. Coal mining built excellent K-12 schools and community colleges, while modernizing Wyoming’s four-year university. Coal helped Wyoming amass a wealth fund with an estimated value of $20 billion.
Coal is responsible for helping to create the term “Gillette Syndrome” ― the boom town phenomenon of acute social disruption due to rapid industrial growth ― and then enabled the same town to demolish that reputation by building a thriving community with world-class amenities.
Coal gave Wyoming what few rural communities have: Economic security.
The pitfalls of a fossil-fueled economy, however, are no mystery. No other state in the nation had a more narrow economy than Wyoming, focusing on coal, oil and natural gas.
Those industries already were stumbling toward new lows before the COVID-19 pandemic tightened the screws. What faces the state’s leaders now is finding a new economic base ― shifting from supporting an industry to supporting its towns and counties.
So far, that doesn’t appear to be happening. New Mexico has launched an ambitious strategy to divest from coal-fired power while providing financial aid to communities to prepare for the transition away from coal. In Wyoming, lawmakers pitched legislation to penalize utilities for using renewable energy. Wyoming lawmakers passed a bill requiring utilities to install financially risky carbon-capture systems, allowing each utility to recover up to $1 billion in carbon capture capital from ratepayers.
Colorado recently established a “Just Transition” collaboration and a fund to help coal communities reorient toward a sustainable future without coal. In Wyoming, lawmakers floated a raft of bills this winter that come to the aid of the coal industry itself, offering up an estimated $48 million in benefits and expenditures while offering little in direct aid to coal workers.
“I keep wondering if all our politicians are behind the curve when it comes to public opinion,” said Larry Wolfe, a longtime energy industry attorney and lobbyist in the state. “I think the people who live in these communities know their future is in serious doubt if they’re mining coal or operating a coal-fired power plant, or their livelihood is dependent on all the ancillary industries.”
Ben Alexander is senior program adviser at the Resources Legacy Fund, a nonprofit conservation group with bases in California and Montana. A few years ago, he set out to find modern-day examples of energy-dependent communities in the West that are finding success in building a new local economy.
“There were not a ton of places,” Alexander said. “But there were some in Wyoming.”
They include Sheridan County and Wyoming’s coal capital, Campbell County. Alexander said he found dozens of local leaders in those counties carefully working to expand the local tax base, invest in training, and paving the way for new businesses.
Alexander said that some local governments started planning because they didn’t have the tremendous savings that the state had accumulated. “The finality of it (coal), I think, has led to better decision making and more focus on what other options are available,”
It’s cathartic for a state and for a community to collectively mourn a loss. But it can also slip into a kind of indulgence that doesn’t lead to good policy. If Wyoming is going to survive this historic economic transition, state leadership is going to have to realize it cannot succeed in saving the coal industry.
What the state can do is face reality and help to save local communities.
Dustin Bleizeffer is a contributor to Writers on the Range.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic and for 20 years as a statewide reporter and editor. He lives in Casper, Wyo.