WyoFile Energy Report

Don’t harass our coal miners

A group called High Country Rising Tide announced this month that it plans to mount a series of “arrestable” protests in Wyoming this year, including “confronting mine operators and law enforcement in Campbell County,” according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

Such a spectacle would certainly draw attention to the group’s concern about climate change from the burning of Powder River Basin coal. But it’s an awfully bad idea.

Dustin Bleizeffer

I’m a former Powder River Basin coal miner (I worked two summers as a college “summer hire;” one summer driving haul truck and another working on a maintenance crew). And I’m a Gillette native with plenty of friends and family who work at Powder River Basin coal mines. I’m sickened at the thought that anyone would harass our coal miners as they go to work and try to earn a living.

I’m also a journalist who passionately supports freedom of speech, including public protests. But this idea to create a spectacle by harassing coal miners is wrong. There are many legitimate reasons to challenge policies surrounding the use of coal, but shouting down the men and women who go to work each day at Wyoming coal mines misses the mark on so many levels.

Protest if you must, but every protester should know that if they harass coal miners they are doing a huge injustice to working class Americans responsible for one of the most amazingly well-operated industries in the world. They’re also doing much more to de-legitimize reasonable criticisms of the industry and our current energy policy than they are driving smart policy.

During the past 15 years our coal industry, and our elected officials here in Wyoming have had a series of opportunities to support, and own, cleaner coal technologies that would keep coal viable under tougher emission standards, and they have consistently slapped away that out-stretched hand of opportunity. Now the industry — focused more on markets than American energy policy — is putting its efforts toward shipping one of America’s greatest energy resources to China. They deceivingly place the blame on so-called obstructionists.

Taunting coal miners in Wyoming only plays into the hands of coal industry lobbyists, who will easily portray the spectacle as a misinformed movement to hobble America’s energy engine. And a counter movement has already sprung to life in Gillette; “Friends of Coal” launched a Facebook page that quickly gained 3,000 members, according to the Gillette News-Record.

During my tenure as a mechanic’s helper and parts-delivery person in Gillette (another job I had, related to the coal industry in Wyoming), I visited every coal mine in the state. I worked long hours at many of those mines, and I had to cross a picket line at a mine in Colorado. In my 15 years as a Wyoming journalist, I visited several more coal mines, including one in China, and I covered high-level discussions on energy policy in the U.S., China and Germany.

I’m under no obligation to commit carte blanche support of coal mining, or of every protest — even if protests are critically important and an integral part of our freedom of speech doctrine. But I am committed to this; harassing coal miners on their way to and from work is wrong. It’s your right if you choose to do it, but why insult our mining workers and their families in Wyoming?

In fact, if I had to choose where in America to mine 400 million tons-plus of coal per year, I would pick the Powder River Basin. Its rural population and relatively flat, arid landscape provides ample opportunity for reclamation and relatively safe strip-mining practices — certainly a far safer and more environmentally-suited place to mine coal than the Appalachian mountains where underground mining and mountaintop removal is a bane to both the environment and its communities. I have complaints, and I have reported on them, about workplace safety and environmental impacts from mining in the Powder River Basin. I also dislike the fact that managers and supervisors have pressured workers to “vote right” on election day. But I suspect that High Country Rising Tide has no idea what a well-managed operation and critical energy lifeline we have in Wyoming coal.

Don’t mistake my praise as full support for a coal-burning energy system that was born in the Victorian Age and still fills our air, land, water and lungs with a laundry list of pollutants. We can do much better. Even Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead — who is under great political obligation to support Wyoming coal — said recently, “Wyoming needs to figure out different and cleaner coal uses.” Legitimate criticism of policies related to our coal-energy complex would be taken more seriously if it were aimed at the perpetrators of bad policy — lobby groups and elected officials — rather than coal miners, whom I respect. You should respect them, too.

Yes, I’m an advocate of smarter energy policies that would reduce the environmental footprint of coal — but not necessarily to champion for the possible outcome of reducing the mining or use of coal. If the coal industry had embraced carbon capture and sequestration technologies when it had the opportunity to do so 10 years ago, it would have secured the future of Wyoming’s $1 billion per-year revenue workhorse, and Wyoming may have gained a foothold in a lucrative new world market in technologies that we could sell to emerging economies. No wonder American utilities are ending their love affair with coal and making overtures to cheaper — for now — natural gas. Instead, the coal industry won the battle against smarter energy policy for the short-term preservation of our current energy system, and it abandoned America’s long-term energy interests to invigorate China’s economy and further pollute the world environment.

I am also an advocate of hard working people who deserve policies with a long-term view of energy and environmental considerations — not the insult of waving placards in the faces of our coal miners. By the way, you’d be amazed at the diversity of Wyoming coal miners; people who also care deeply for the wildlife and wild spaces they get to enjoy here in Wyoming afforded with their coal mine job salaries. Folks who are considering harassing these workers would do us all a favor to instead join the less headline-catching work of coming to terms with difficult energy policies and diligently working to change them for the better.

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Climate change absolutelty dwarfs the issue of jobs in Wyoming. If anyone should be picketed or demonstrated against, it is coal company executives, not workers. The consequences of continued mining and burning of coal is horrific and will haunt the children of coal miners and executives alike.
    There really is no such thing as a viable clean coal technology, simply because coal sequestration that made any impact at all would require an infrastructure equal to a century’s worth of oil & gas infrastructure. Ain’t gonna happen. We’ve arguably doomed our children and grandchildren and all this denialism means that whatever we do will be too little, too late.

  2. My father went into the underground coal mines when he was 14 years old. My grandfather Bell did the same when he was a boy in England. My grandfather was working in the mines in Northern Colorado when the Colorado National Guard was called out to shoot miners on strike in Southern Colorado. They wanted better working conditions. I agree with Dustin that there should be no harassment of honest working people.
    I disagree completely that we should be wed to coal. By doing so we commit our children and grandchildren to a horrible future. I am an old, WWII veteran so I won’t be around much longer but I hate to think of what my progeny are going to experience in the years just ahead. A terrible drought may be just in the offing. And the summer may be suffocating with heat.
    It will be the beginning of horrible disasters that will kill thousands and cost trillions of dollars all because we continued to burn coal and filled our atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Not to worry, there will be no humans to contend with all of that. Or to make all of that MONEY. Sorry, but I have been around long enough to comprehend reality and what we are doing is committing mass suicide.

  3. The following two statements are right on the mark, in my opinion, and constitute the most important points of the essay:

    “They’re also doing much more to de-legitimize reasonable criticisms of the industry and our current energy policy than they are driving smart policy.”

    “Taunting coal miners in Wyoming only plays into the hands of coal industry lobbyists, who will easily portray the spectacle as a misinformed movement to hobble America’s energy engine.”

  4. Dustin…
    That was a VERY informative article. I have been out of the country for 30 years, so it was very helpful for me. I am in SD and just beginning to understand what is happening in the area. I have family in Gillette, some involved in coal. I agree, the working people should not be disturbed.
    Nancy Gregory

  5. Tremendous perspective, Dustin. I agree with all you’ve written. Please think about a follow-up on Labor Day. I appreciate Tom Lubnau’s point too but suggest that while, yes, industry has a right to develop and market their share of the resource, we all should be mindful of our role in the chain of energy. PRB coal belongs to every citizen of the United States and it is thus our obligation as owners and stewards to try to make sure that it is used in a safe and environmentally protective way. I hope Tom can use the trip to China as a way to apply and share his expertise and help all of us find a better path forward.

  6. Well said. We agree as much as we disagree, but this opinion piece is very well done. I disagree with your characterization of the American Energy Policy and markets. From my point of view, if the US will not utilize this resource in a safe clean way, it should be sold. It is a matter of jobs. When the mines start laying off folks because the don’t have coal demand (they are), the issue becomes one of protecting the livelihood of my friends and neighbors. Don’t confuse the sale to Asia with a loss of focus on clean coal technologies. They are part and parcel with one another, and that is what I will argue in Xi’an next week.