One loaded coal train rolls out of Arch Coal's Black Thunder mine as an empty train is in queue. Arch, now under Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, promises to keep commitments to retirees. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wake up, Wyoming! Coal country needs help, and help has not been forthcoming from industry or from our politicians. 

A much bigger illness than COVID-19 faces our coal industry, and no vaccine can stop it. Yet, no one seems to be seriously seeking a cure. Companies are struggling, production’s sharp decline has steepened, rail traffic is down, layoffs and furloughs abound. These symptoms began way before 2020. Believe what you will about climate change or a “war on coal,” the simple fact is coal is no longer cost-competitive with renewable energy or natural gas. Coal will keep losing market share, more coal power plants will close and those that are left will burn less coal. 

Ask Peabody and Arch, the last giant coal companies still in the Powder River Basin. They pled lack of price competitiveness to argue at the Federal Trade Commission for a joint venture to operate their mines. They lost, and now Arch has announced plans to shut down its Coal Creek Mine and scale back Black Thunder Mine, which a few short years ago produced roughly 10% of the nation’s coal. Now, Arch is planning to leave the Powder River Basin entirely.

Lighthouse Resources’ bankruptcy caused the first complete and permanent closure of a major Powder River Basin coal mine (Decker) earlier this year. Most of Decker’s now-unemployed miners are members of my community of Sheridan. 

More than 80% of Powder River Basin mines have been through bankruptcy proceedings in recent years. The mines still operating have new owners and reduced production. None of these new owners are as well-capitalized as their bankrupt predecessors in better days. 

Last October marked the one-year anniversary of newcomer operators Eagle Specialty Materials (now Prairie Eagle Mining) and Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC), both privately held companies with headquarters outside the state. Their employees and communities have little information about company finances, but they do know these smaller outfits have less access to capital and provide little confidence in the long-term future of mines, jobs and communities. Miners, small business suppliers, utilities and municipal governments are all understandably worried, having been burned so recently. Many have seen their neighbors lose healthcare benefits and even retirement savings, and wonder if they’re next. 

Recent bankruptcies have also meant a big loss of local and state taxes, as well as tens of millions of dollars in unpaid federal coal royalties, half of which would have come back to Wyoming. A short time ago Campbell County was one of the wealthiest counties in our state, and a major contributor to statewide education funding. Its tax base has collapsed, and local governments are facing significant budget challenges. 

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And let’s not forget the yet-to-be-reclaimed lands and water that could be a foundation for future economic activity. Tens of thousands of acres of land still need to be restored to pre-mining condition and productive surface use — hopefully before the companies that are left walk away. 

The Department of Environmental Quality needs to require honest mine closure plans, ensuring the mines state a realistic end-of-life date and a reclamation plan that will restore the land before the company leaves or goes bankrupt. The state should pressure companies to include worker-transition planning, job retraining and retirement benefits. 

Analyst Dan Cohn, in a recent Sightline Institute report “Planning for Coal Mine Closure in the Powder River Basin,” stated it succinctly. “Every coal miner, and everyone in a coal community, deserves credible information about the outlook for the industry and for the major employers in the area. And they also deserve serious plans and resources to support people building a life after coal. The transition is coming faster than most people think,” he wrote.

The Wyoming legislature refuses to even discuss revising our tax structure. They repeatedly reject Medicaid expansion even as they see miners dispossessed of their employer healthcare plans and sometimes their pensions. Gov. Mark Gordon quixotically pursues lawsuits against other states to force them to buy coal-fired electricity or build coal-export facilities. He cuts supplemental unemployment benefits. Together they concoct statutes to force Wyoming citizens to subsidize coal plants and pie-in-the-sky carbon-capture processes by paying higher electricity rates. 

Given all this, as I sit here today, I can’t help but think we need better leadership to represent the interests of the people of coal country. We need state and local government and business leaders who will put miners and communities first and recognize today’s reality. The energy transition is happening before our very eyes. It’s past time to find solutions to rebuild the revenue that coal used to bring, the jobs the industry used to provide and the communities that built today’s Wyoming.

Bob LeResche

Bob LeResche is a former Commissioner of Natural Resources of Alaska, energy executive and investment banker. He and his wife Carol own a ranch and heirloom vegetable farm near Clearmont, Wyoming. He is...

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  1. Great article Bob. As a retired miner I can say after 40 plus years of working for large corporations all I saw were stagnant wages and disappearing benefits. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Coal is rapidly reaching the end. Our legislators and Governor should be focused on moving on to new ideas to create an economy that will replace coal and the revenue it brings.

  2. It is not hard to fathom the people elected to make major decisions concerning Wyoming. These same folks cannot make a decision on who runs the Republican party in Wyoming. Go figure. These folks are stuck and are not able to figure out how to get Wyoming out of it whoas. I know wait for the taxpayers of America to bail them out. Send more money to the school systems that are graduating less and less kids. And the ones that do make it through high school go college then move somewhere else due to the fact that their are no jobs in Wyoming for them. This is more than likely because our legislators cannot figure out how to bring business to Wyoming as usual. Fossil fuels rule our state.

    1. Lets be honest.. Its been engrained into our society attending college and obtaining some degree to be used in whatever chosen field of work is necessary & the superior way to elevate ones living in every facet so to speak.

      U.S. yearly High School drop out rate is 16%
      U.S. yearly College drop out rate is 40%.
      Cost of college tuition has continuously increased 1375% since 1978
      Highest U.S. consumer debt is ranked as follows- 1. Morgage 2. Student loans 3. Auto 4. Credit Cards
      Recommended amount needed to retire modestly comfortable today is $1,300,000.

      In other words, a person needs to make over $75,000yr and anyone making under must play russian roulette with stocks for a slim chance.

      Gambling on what corporation is next up to play slappsies with the courts is far less risky.

      Alternatively the bulk of degrees through college, can be earned through a modified apprenticeship program with an occasional class here & there, minimal sufficient training time before able to test up, skill testing & certification to move up onto higher training with its matching wage. similarly to how electricians start as an apprentice $, then journeyman $$, then master electrician $$$, then some onto business ownership $$$$.

      College is only needed for a small number of careers in comparison to the numerous degrees they offer…. apprenticeships have been limited to trades mostly for three reasons-
      1. An apprentice requires a great amount of investment long term while returns/gains are delayed until much later (or possibly wasted/lost).
      2. Apprenticeships are a relationship of sorts, meaning it requires opening self up tiny bit, small amount of trust given & recieved & given & recieved growing each time, patience, some form of master/pupil respect- it differs from the employee/boss as a bosses position doesnt necessarily mean their more capable/skilled.
      3. Apprenticeships are not financially profitable & involve uncollectable high loss risks; on the other hand fees for college tuition are not based on economics or a degrees potential career earnings. They are free to set any cost borrowed by an ingrained society and backed by the government and its student loan debt collection laws who give contracts to collection agency’s giving authority to stick an additional 25% delinquent payment intrest plus their 38% collection fee together equaling 63% all on top of original borrower amount & interest rate nearly doubling what was owed. A Lil catch 22, government & its agencies dont need to take into account current income living situation or dependants when deciding default monthly repayment amount, can take from your future earned ssi, entire yearly income tax return, and garnish wages by 50% until paid in full.

      How this current college system happens to function is another necrotic casualty of a septicemic system. As for fossil fuels renewable energy the economy environment and our nation; nothing will get better, greed & corruption will continue to rule until we stop prioritizing & justifying financial accumulation above what its costing. This applies to each person, family, community, city, state, nation.