A coal conveyor stretches over the Hilight Road to railroad loadout silos at Arch Resources' Black Thunder mine in Wyoming's southern Powder River Basin coalfields. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

More bad news for Wyoming coal: The Coal Creek coal mine in the Powder River Basin just announced it is shuttering. The blow follows closely on the heels of the Decker mine halting operations.

Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s response to the news was, “We’re going to continue to fight for every Wyoming job,” which read like a statement penned by a staffer. Which may explain why, rather than explaining how he intends to “fight for every Wyoming job” Barrasso deflected responsibility by blaming the decades-in-the-making decline of our coal industry on the three-week-old Biden administration.

By the way, our pain is far from over. Arch Resources, Inc. has indicated that the enormous Black Thunder mine is next on the list. With the compassion of The Grinch on Christmas Eve, Arch’s CEO and president Paul Lang said in a statement, “Our objective is to continue to harvest value and cash from our legacy thermal assets.” It doesn’t seem like these out-of-state CEOs consider towns such as Kemmerer and Gillette as communities with schools, churches, restaurants and playgrounds. Instead they represent the geological position of “legacy thermal assets” there for the “harvest.”

Last year, when other Wyoming mines went into bankruptcy, both Barrasso and now-retired Sen. Mike Enzi opposed legislation that would protect impacted mine workers. Enzi said the price tag was too high, and Barrasso promised he was “committed to finding a solution that will lessen the burden on the miners,” which never happened. It’s one thing to do nothing, and quite another to stand in the way of help.

Wyoming does not need any more soundbites blaming Obama or Biden for America’s shift away from coal, nor does it need empty and unfulfilled promises. What we need is to cut some deals of our own.

We know from the Blackjewel bankruptcy, and the current settlement being considered by the judge, that workers will be lucky to get a fraction of what they are owed. The owner of the Decker coal mine, Lighthouse Resources — which filed for bankruptcy in December — appears to be following the model of the Westmoreland Coal Company, which after closing the Kemmerer mine arranged to toss out retiree obligations and the union contract.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is pushing a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. The bill is certain to pass given the Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Nonetheless, President Joe Biden would surely relish a shot at some Republican support. Since the bill is going to pass anyway, instead of wasting this opportunity shouldn’t our two senators cut a deal?

Through subsidies, the tax code and environmental regulations, the federal government picks winners and losers in the energy sector. Which is why it is completely appropriate to require assistance to those neighborhoods adversely impacted by government decisions.

In return for two Republican votes, Wyoming should require that the stimulus bill provides federal relief for workers who are affected by mine closures. This could include full protection for any retirement or pension obligations, healthcare coverage for the lesser of two years or when a worker becomes re-employed and extended unemployment coverage similar to what is being offered to those impacted by COVID-19. 

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This should cover not just our coal miners, but the rail workers and other trades and businesses that depend upon an open mine. The bill’s language should also strip mining companies of the ability to use bankruptcy laws to duck out of existing union contracts and other employee obligations. Not much to ask inside of a $1.9 trillion dollar bill.

Wyoming’s members of Congress should further ask for public assurances from the Democratic leadership to fast-track a bill that will provide comprehensive transition support to communities affected by declining coal volumes. 

This is what it means to represent your state over your political party.

Over the last few decades, Congress members have increasingly shifted from representing their communities to representing just their political party and the donors that fund their campaigns. Wyoming desperately needs a delegation that will cut some deals and place our needs above all else, including prioritizing Wyoming interests ahead of those of Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment.

Dave Dodson

Dave Dodson lives in Wyoming and is a former CEO and professor at Stanford University. He was a Wyoming Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Read more from his archive at davedodson.com/news.

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  1. Dave – Always thoughtful even if I don’t always agree. thank you.

    But instead of the crony socialism practiced and espoused by our WY electeds (using government support and resources to prop up chosen industries), why don’t we promote changing the rules of the game (i.e., the laws) so that companies cannot discharge their written obligations to workers in bankruptcy while doling out “retention bonuses” to the very execs who steered the companies into financial distress? Why advocate for government bailing ot workers instead of holding companies and their execs responsible and accountable?

    Also, I’m wondering, were Wyomingites and our electeds calling to support lost jobs and downfallen industries in the manufacturing rust belt back east? Or was that deemed “socialism” and the lack of support justified because, well, it didn’t seem to impact us here in WY? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

  2. As the first commenter above succinctly reminded us, 70% of Wyoming voted for Trump.

    But this is the worst thing Wyoming voters can do to themselves.

    Not because Democrats are morally superior or have better policy positions. But simply because Republican electoral victories have become 100% reliable regardless of how poorly Wyoming voters are treated by their politicians, from the state legislature all the way to the White House.

    Senator Barraso’s empty, unfulfilled promise to help vulnerable coal workers is a case in point – he broke his word with complete confidence that his perfidy would make no difference in his next election – the poor saps that voted for him last time were practically guaranteed to vote for him again regardless of his legislative achievements.

    Similarly, Democrats (mostly in Washington since there are so few in power in Wyoming) give Wyoming short shrift on most things because they assume they’ll never win an important election here; Why should Biden or Pelosi (to name two) expend political capital on Wyoming when there is virtually no chance of Democrats winning congressional seats or electoral votes?

    If Wyoming voters want a better deal from Washington, start voting more for Democrats – at least enough to make the elections competitive. Create a meaningful penalty (e.g. booted from office) for poor performance.

  3. Dave, I agree with your summations of RHINO Barrasso’s words and action. I believe that Wyoming politicians are missing the writing on the wall. Over 70% of the State voted for Trump. There will be no deals made. These Democrats currently in power are a childish and vindictive group. Wyoming will be lucky to get a used bone thrown there way. The good Doctor and other Republicans need to save our constitution with its liberties and rights. The Democrats have positioned themselves to take over and destroy country as we know it. Time to quit playing “small ball” and realize what is at stake here. Terry

    1. I don’t even know where to start correcting your delusions, so I won’t.

      Unplug from fox and Facebook. You might be amazed that it’s not the doom and gloom that you’re accustomed to slurping up.

      Cheers

  4. Dave: I’m a lifelong progressive democrat (47 years here in Jackson Hole) and take issue with many Republican economics positions, But I find nothing in your piece to object to. What I am puzzled about is this: why have so many mining and minerals workers failed to see that Republican economic policies in Wyoming favor the interests of the minerals business owners over those of the workers. To another of your points: I’ve never received anything other than anodyne and deflective correspondence from the likes of Senators Barrasso and Enzi. Ms. Lummis, too, has been equally evasive in her first response to me weeks ago. I’m beginning to think that none of them appreciates direct responses to direct questions. Of course when folks like Senators Barrasso and Enzi and the minerals executives resort to insultingly Orwellian language (“legacy thermal assets” and the need to “harvest” them), gulling workers and voters in those communities is, sadly, all too easy. The economic pain their policies and practices have birthed in the work force and communities near the operations will endure for many years, I’m afraid. But perhaps as that pain spreads and deepens, some of the affected voters will realize just how insignificant they really are in the money mill: an arrangement that favors corporate protection over workers’ economic futures. Respectfully, Mike Calabrese

    1. This article is so revealing, My concern is that WY officials will spend the next few years in total denial of the real situation with the fossil fuel energy sector and fail to take any positive steps on behalf of the citizens of the State, While we are spending dollars shoring up the coal and oil industries, benefits are being cut to the poor and elderly,. WY will be a sad state to live in if this continues; citizens forget we had a free ride for so many years.