Cattle graze on land that's been reclaimed after mining at Peabody Energy's Caballo mine in northeast Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In some of the most ambitious climate action steps ever taken by the U.S. government, the Biden Administration has announced an executive order pausing new oil and gas leases on federal lands. Among other directives, the order also declares climate change as a national security threat, eliminates fossil fuel subsidies, and will establish a White House interagency working group focused on helping coal communities transition away from coal.

In the order, President Biden stated: “We need to be bold. So let me be clear, that includes helping revitalizing the economies of coal, oil, and gas and power plant communities. We have to start by creating new good paying jobs, capping those abandoned wells, reclaiming mines, turning old brownfield sites in the new hubs of economic growth, creating new good paying jobs in those communities where those workers live because they helped build this country.” 

In Wyoming, a top fossil fuel energy producing state — much of which is done on federal lands — the executive order was met by fierce opposition from Wyoming leadership. All three members of Wyoming’s federal delegation have publicly condemned the executive orders and indicated that they will fight as hard as possible to push back through newly introduced legislation. Much is on the line — the jobs that support entire communities and most of the state’s tax revenues. As a laid-off Gillette coal worker stated to Reveal News in 2017: “This community is all rooted in coal, all the way down to the fast food. Everybody relies on the miners.”

However, there is also a growing number in Wyoming who recognize that the energy transition has arrived permanently, and that the best course forward is to plot out a new future. Louise Carter-King, the mayor of Gillette — Wyoming’s coal-producing epicenter — acknowledged as much and stated her desire to work with President Biden to help bring jobs to the community saying: “for one thing, he did say during his campaign ‘I will work with the blue states and the red states.’ Well, we are one of the reddest counties in one of the reddest states in the nation. We are ready to talk.”

It’s definitely time to talk, and act. For anything to change, coal communities themselves have to be willing to step forward. As former Missouri Governor Bob Holden stated at a 2018 forum on Climate Solutions, Coal Communities and Economic Diversification: “Everyone welcomes change until it directly impacts you.” D.C. leadership can and should play a significant role in partnering with coal communities, but the real change will happen when it grows within and is sustained by the communities themselves. 

One way to start would be for the Wyoming Legislature to create and authorize a Wyoming agency focused on the energy transition.

Some states — notably in the West — have started to implement their own just transition plans for coal workers. Two examples are New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act which creates “statewide renewable energy standards and establishes a pathway for a low-carbon energy transition away from coal while providing workforce training and transition assistance to affected communities” and Colorado’s Just Transition Office and Just Transition Advisory Committee

Colorado’s Just Transition Office’s “overarching goal is to avert yet another boom-bust cycle in Colorado by helping coal communities and workers transition to prosperous futures.” Proposed strategies and actions in the Just Transition Draft Plan include aligning state and local programs to assist local strategies; targeting early successes in business start-ups; attracting grants to power local economic growth; and related strategies, outlining where the authority, funding, timing, and lead will come from in mobilizing toward goals. 

Wyoming also seeks to avoid the next bust. In 2017-2018, Wyoming took significant initial steps toward achieving these goals through the creation of ENDOW — Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming. The group produced a report after engaging thousands of Wyoming citizens and hundreds of Wyoming businesses. It included a 20 year outlook with funding recommendations to be authorized through the state Legislature. Now would be a terrific time to dust off the report and explore steps that Wyoming can take right away.

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One immediate opportunity with funding support from D.C. would be to amp up Wyoming’s Energy Rebound Program that hires oil and gas workers to plug abandoned and uncompleted oil and gas wells. This program creates jobs now for Wyoming’s energy workers.

In the shorter term, as the need to act on climate becomes more and more urgent, Wyoming’s energy leadership can play a central role as ground zero for large scale carbon capture projects, specifically in direct air capture. On the renewable energy front, Wyoming’s abundant wind has the potential to support lots of good jobs constructing and maintaining wind turbines. A booming wind industry will also attract wind equipment manufacturers and industries that want to procure renewable energy directly, creating more jobs and more tax revenue. These energy investments will further strengthen cheap energy availability in Wyoming, helping to continue to attract energy intensive industries such as data centers and digital currency “miners” to the state.

Long term, now’s a great time to strategize and look ahead to the next 50 years. What will be the services that the nation needs in 2070 in energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, the digital revolution, agriculture and more — and how can Wyoming start aligning with the future now? The pandemic has accelerated permanent changes in our society. A distributed workforce is here to stay. Lots of workers will continue to be able to live anywhere to do their work. Wyoming, with our world-class outdoors stands to benefit. 

At the end of the day, the Biden Administration’s climate executive order can mark a new beginning that ultimately creates a better future for places like Wyoming. Over the decades, coal communities have been on the front lines in building and powering America, and there’s no reason they can’t continue to be.

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  1. Thank you for your brilliant assessment on what the future of Wyoming can become. These important transitions WY can make for future clean energy going forward are ‘no brainers’!