A sign in downtown Rock Springs reminds residents and visitors of the town’s entrenched relationship with coal. (RJ Pieper)

Communities in southwest Wyoming got a double dose of bad news this month as oil and gas company Halliburton announced layoffs at its Rock Springs headquarters just as Wyoming utility Rocky Mountain Power finalized a plan to fast-track the retirement of four of its six coal-fired power units. 

Residents here are accustomed to the volatility of the oil and gas industry. But as the clock ticks toward coal plant retirements, few locals deny that the nationwide shift from coal in favor of renewables will fundamentally alter the economic landscape of southwest Wyoming. Despite that, residents and leaders have yet to come together in a formal capacity to forge a transition plan. 

Sweetwater County Commissioner Jeffrey Smith said the combination of Halliburton’s layoffs and Rocky Mountain Power’s pending closures doesn’t feel like the harbinger of a bust. At least not one as significant as the downturn of the ‘80s, when bumper stickers reminded everyone, “Last One To Leave, Turn Out The Lights.”

The region’s trona industry is preparing to expand, Smith said, and Rocky Mountain Power will continue to operate two of its four coal units at the Jim Bridger Plant outside Rock Springs well beyond 2030.

“I think it’s kind of a mixed bag,” Smith said. Still, local leaders wonder whether the region can attract new high-paying jobs that might help slow the continual exodus of Wyoming youth who move to urban areas in neighboring states where the rate of job growth is double, and sometimes triple, Wyoming’s.

Wyoming ranks third in the nation for losses among its millennial population, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ August edition of Trends. The age group shrunk by 5.1% from 2014 to 2018, a rate only exceeded by Vermont and Rhode Island. 

“It’s something of a difficult sell right now,” Smith said of the area’s appeal. “Younger people might love living here and love the hunting and everything else. But is there a job that’s not oil and gas, and I’m not going to get laid off? They hear of Halliburton, and that scares people off. They hear of Rocky Mountain Power. And so do people want to stick around?” 

Losses stack up

In an email statement to WyoFile, Halliburton spokeswoman Erin Fuchs said the company is not providing location-specific job-loss numbers. Commissioner Smith said his constituents estimate the number of layoffs in Rock Springs at 185 — 28% of the 650 jobs trimmed throughout Halliburton’s Rocky Mountain region. Employees have been offered job opportunities at Halliburton’s operations in Texas and North Dakota, Smith said. Despite that, he said, the layoffs came without warning, and it’s hitting families hard.

“Do you want to pick up and move your family in the middle of the school year?” he asked. “Mom or dad pick up and start living in North Dakota and come home every two weeks? It’s very disruptive, certainly. It makes it really hard for families. It is, unfortunately, the nature of the business.”

In the early 2000s, Rock Springs served as Halliburton’s largest fracking headquarters in the world. Halliburton plans to remain active in Wyoming,  spokeswoman Fuchs said. “Regarding a short-term plan, we will continue to have a footprint in Rock Springs and will keep some cement crews in the area,” Fuchs said via email. “We also have multiple service lines operating out of Casper.”

The Jim Bridger power plant near Rock Springs during its nightly shift change. (RJ Pieper)

Utility giant PacifiCorp, which serves customers across a six-state region in the West and operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, first gave notice in early 2019 that it was considering moving up retirement dates for some of its coal-power generation fleet. On Oct. 18, the utility submitted its final Integrated Resource Management Plan to the Wyoming Public Service Commission confirming those plans. 

In Wyoming, the utility proposes to retire one coal power unit at the Jim Bridger power plant outside Rock Springs in 2023 and two Naughton coal units near Kemmerer in 2025. Another unit at Jim Bridger will go offline in 2028, and all four units at the Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock are set to close by 2027. Jim Bridger coal units 3 and 4 will continue to operate until 2037. 

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Spencer Hall declined to speculate how coal unit closures could affect job numbers in Wyoming, but said the utility hopes to avoid any layoffs, instead relying on attrition and reassignments elsewhere within PacifiCorp. He said the utility is recruiting workers in preparation for major expansions in transmission and wind energy. It plans to add 3,500 megawatts of new wind generation in Wyoming by 2025, and another 4,600 megawatts of wind in the state by 2038.

“We still have a lot of really attractive jobs, and we’re constantly recruiting,” Hall told WyoFile. “The future of energy in Wyoming will be different, but it’s still a great opportunity, and we’re still invested in Wyoming.”

Aging plant workers, and a young population moving on

Roger Varley is manager of the Varley Mercantile, a fourth-generation business that encompasses a bar, restaurant, gas station and trailer park. The latter comprises most of the unincorporated town of Point of Rocks 31 miles east of Rock Springs. The mercantile, which sits just off of Interstate 80, has served as the gateway to the Jim Bridger Plant eight miles north since the plant began operating in the mid-1970s.

“It’s not a dull life,” Varley said. “People can’t imagine that living in a little bitty ol’ town next to the interstate here can have much excitement to it. But I tell you, it’s like living on the main street of the country.”

Plans to downsize operations at Jim Bridger in the next 10 years promise significant changes for Varley’s operation, he said. But he has no plans of going anywhere. “We were here before the power plant, we’ll be here after the power plant,” he said. “It’s just going to be a different lifestyle than we’ve been used to.”

Varley has observed many recent retirements among his Jim Bridger clientele, he said, and heard of more plans to retire soon. “Most of my contacts are sort of at the end of their careers, so they’re kind of just going to ride the wave to retirement,” Varley told WyoFile.

Olivia Varley helps a customer at Varley Mercantile in Point of Rocks, Wyoming. The combination gas station, bar, restaurant and trailer park, which is located off Interstate 80 near the coal-fired Jim Bridger Plant, is frequented by workers of the plant and associated mines. (RJ Pieper)

The semi-annual “turnaround” for upgrades and maintenance at the plant used to draw 200 outside workers for six months, prompting a huge spike in spending at his and other businesses, Varley said. In recent years, he said, the turnaround work seems to draw only 30 or so workers for a shorter period. 

As a businessman, and a resident with deep family ties to the area, Varley said he worries that young people will continue to move away to urban areas outside Wyoming. He said he’d like to see a concerted effort to diversify the local economy to give younger generations more opportunities to stick around. But he’s also tempered his expectations. 

“The politicians and I have definitely had that conversation, because they’re always looking for the next great thing that’s going to save us,” he said. “And I’m afraid that I’m a little bit of a fatalist when it comes to that, especially in Sweetwater County.”

Unless it can provide high-paying wages, Varley said he doesn’t see tourism and outdoor recreation as a way to stop the migration of young people to neighboring states. “It’s just that it’s 7,000 or 8,000 feet [in elevation], and the wind howls through, and there’s not a lot of trees,” Varley said. “People who were not raised here don’t see the beauty … We get seven inches of moisture, and it all comes in the form of snow, and it all comes in sideways.”

Roger Varley’s nephew, 31-year-old Mark Varley, has worked at the family business in Point of Rocks his entire career, and said he plans to stick it out there. “I think there’s plenty of jobs to choose from, but high-paying jobs like the mine or oilfield seem to be drying up,” Mark Varley told WyoFile. “There aren’t many young people around … A lot of my friends moved to Colorado, Washington or Utah.”

Generational changes ahead

Authors of Wyoming’s annual economic review, the MACRO Report, published on Sept. 30, listed their top three concerns for the state’s economic picture:

° The coal mining industry is losing jobs, while oil and gas jobs showed almost no growth in 2019.

° Natural gas and coal production recorded large year-over-year declines.

° Single family home construction showed little change at the state level through the end of August.

Wyoming’s job growth rate of about 1.6% lags behind neighboring states: Colorado is at 2.3%, and Utah and Idaho are both at 3.3%.

The Varley Mercantile is a fourth-generation family business whose customers are comprised largely of Jim Bridger Plant workers. “People can’t imagine that living in a little bitty ol’ town next to the interstate here can have much excitement to it,” Manager Roger Varley said. “But I tell you, it’s like living on the main street of the country.” Varley, pictured top left, with his family: back row, Ed Varley and Mark Varley, and front row, from left, Olivia Varley, Amanda Varley, Rae Dell Varley and Meaghan Varley. (RJ Pieper)

Meantime, Wyoming’s millennial population shrunk by 5.1% from 2014 to 2018 — the third highest rate of decline in the nation. “If millennials continue to move to big metro areas, the state may face a serious labor force shortage and faster population aging in the near future,” said Wenlin Liu, chief economist for Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division, in the August edition of Trends.

State economists also noted that some in Wyoming’s aging workforce are delaying retirement. “The number of older workers increased, as more baby boomers continued to work past age 65,” according to Trends.

Tom Gagnon, 57, moved to Rock Springs from Colorado 15 years ago to work on a Halliburton fracking crew. Today he owns rental property and occasionally substitutes at the high school. In that position, he has watched many young residents move on. 

“Some [students] go off to Laramie with the Hathaway Scholarship,” he said. “Then they seem to drive down [US Highway] 287 to Fort Collins and they don’t come back.”

Gagnon believes communities and the state should consider new social markers, such as legalizing marijuana and expanding Medicaid, as part of their response to declines in fossil fuel industries. To retain young families and attract talented workers, communities must prioritize amenities such as parks and bike paths and encourage recreation at nearby public lands, he said. A concerted effort could be made to attract retirees who feel squeezed out from neighboring urban centers in Colorado and Utah, he said.

“Wyoming has, accidentally, excellent conditions to attract retirees; low property taxes and no income tax,” Gagnon said.

Commissioner Smith, who oversees assisted living facilities in Rock Springs and Casper, said that while he’s concerned about where communities will find future high-paying jobs, he’s also bullish on the prospect for economic diversification. Local governments are making land deals in hopes of establishing a new industrial park near the Rock Springs airport, and community leaders are hoping to land a new business incubator modeled after the Wyoming Technology Business Center in Laramie.

Construction crews are building new homes in Rock Springs that will be offered in the $400,000 to $500,000 range, Smith said. “There are people who are doing fine and are not worried about it, and others are in industries that seem to be struggling,” he said.

The plea for economic diversification and concern about how to keep and attract young families are familiar themes at Sweetwater County Commission meetings, Smith said. For example, one trona company is essentially running its information technology work from Texas because employees with those skills don’t want to make the move to Wyoming, he said.

A scene from Point of Rocks, a tiny town off I-80 that acts at a gateway to Jim Bridger Plant. (RJ Pieper)

“So that’s tough, you know,” Smith said. “So OK, what do we do to find people who want to move to Wyoming and take advantage of Flaming Gorge and all of the stuff that’s sometimes harder to point out to them? It’s our job to point that stuff out to them to make sure people know what’s here.”

Ninety miles west in Kemmerer, the community of 2,700 recently endured the chaos of a bankruptcy at the Kemmerer mine that supplies Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton coal-fired power plant. Although the nearby Opal natural gas hub and Shute Creek natural gas processing plant provide steady high-paying jobs, Rocky Mountain Power plans to unplug two coal units at the Naughton plant in 2025 and convert the third unit from coal to natural gas. 

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Kemmerer mayor Anthony Tomassi said a new $277,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s “Assistance to Coal Communities” program and matched by local agencies, will help fund an economic diversification study. But, he said, few people in town have stepped forward to take the reins on shaping a future less reliant on high-paying industrial jobs. 

“You’d like to have more companies to keep more young people home,” Tomassi said. “But I don’t think we’ve talked strategy yet.” 

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. There are jobs in Jackson, WY. Young people come here. We need to exploit you.

    Not much local housing in Jackson Hole unless you want a dorm room, or roommates — or you can afford a second unoccupied home here. We always need the state’s plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, professional landscapers, truck drivers, bus drivers, equipment operators, nurses, police officers, etc. Add your long commute to our clogging roadways. Those jobs are good replacements for many mining jobs if you don’t mind living up to an hour away and liberals gone wild. We have more STEM openings then you would expect. We value wildlife more than people so plenty of jobs pertaining to the ecosystem. WYDOT has people picking up dead animals all the time. If you speak English & Spanish you’ll find a million job offers. Promise. The local government agencies are always hiring, always expanding. They need professional help. Avoid the ski resorts at all costs.

    The business plan of the hospitality industry is to utilize visa workers whenever possible and cram them into dorm rooms, trailers, or apartments with a multitude of co-workers so it is unlikely that tourism jobs will keep all unskilled & young Wyoming residents from leaving the state. It is possible for young people to avoid the cattle call and land a good year-round job, or two, in that industry. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, though. Of course, Jackson can only support so many Wyoming residents. With thousands of visa workers in our housing, it is hard to get a foot in the door anyway but opportunities are always there for those willing to give it a try. Employers will hire anyone if the pay is low enough. Don’t be shy, come on over. Half of us live in our cars during the summer. Start your own landscaping business and hire your own visa workers. This is the place, not Utah.

    By all means, leave the state and visit Jackson Hole.

  2. The Wyoming Legislature, like alcoholics, are about 80 percent self indulgent and self serving. It’s time the majority sobers up.
    We need an Economic 12-Step program in Cheyenne the first few months of any given year when the Lej is in session.
    Step One of rehabilitation on the road to salvation is always admitting to everyone else but especially those in your circle that you do indeed have a problem.

    The conversation needs to be something like this : ” Hi, I’m a Republican Wyoming Legislator and I have a problem . I have a pathological hatred of any and all new Taxes and it’s killing me…”

    If Wyoming expects to do more than merely survive at a subsistence level and have any hope of ever thriving again , it needs to embark on a serious ‘ don’t look back ‘ campaign of Total Tax Reform.

    I won’t say the Democrats in the Lej have the answers. But they are generally dry and sober. Listen to them , even if it pains . Total… Tax … Reform. Wyoming can no longer afford or even hope to live with the political repression that is Republican conservative dogma. If that worked, we wouldn’t be having this conversation . We’d all be living like Liechtenstein-in-the-Rockies around here. So….?

    1. “I am proud of the part I took in opposing the Government, that a country which tries to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and endeavouring to lift himself up by the handle.” – Winston Churchill.

  3. Same old bread in the basket and the crumbs are still being searched through the old fossil basket to save Wyoming… I laugh at the comment about attracting the old people to come to Wyoming because of our low property taxes, and no income taxes, for it is a myth… They are coming to Wyoming because they can sell their house in nearby States for greater revenues, and purchase on lower taxes to hoard their profits and buy the toys… Then the trend sets in services and expansions which will require expansions in Governmental services with no revenue base… Hemp and Mary Jane or Gambling will not cure Wyoming ills, yes they will create jobs, but the cost of living here will require a wage suitable to live here… Next, young people need healthcare, not us old farts, they are the future, so give them what they need, great education, great healthcare, scholarships for the trades which are demanding employees and most of a brighter future… The Wyoming legislative branches have failed to achieve these goals for Wyoming and are always worried about what we have, not looking at what we could obtain… We outsource our Kids, for they have the backgrounds of hard work, using hands and facing adversity when we should express to them utilize what you’ve learn and combined it with technology… Even Robotics needs trained hands to retro-fit that broken machine, or correct the self-checkout at Wal-mart… Wyoming is self-check itself out of the futures of tomorrow…

  4. Excellent article. The first step in solving any problem is first to admit that it exist. Denial of what the market wants (i.e., carbon-free energy) in Wyoming over the previous few years has been really pathetic. It is, after all, not always a matter of what you would like to get, but of dealing with what you’re going to get. Always keep in mind that nobody really cares what “you want.” On the less gloomy side of an identified and accepted problem, it might be helpful to sometimes ask “Could this actually bring about anything positive?” “What might the future look like without that big smoke stack?” ” Are local health problems related to the current economy, and could changes help that?” and on and on.

  5. Denial never helps when something is dying, and I’m glad to see that starting to lessen. Let’s get real and diversify Wyoming’s economy in sustainable ways that empower the working class. Here’s a starter list:

    1) Legalize pot. Why should Colorado get all of our business and tax revenue?
    2) Build solar & wind farms– use Wyoming’s other abundant natural resources!
    3) Plant a million trees. This is good for climate stabilization, and also is good work.
    4) End tariffs screwing over American farmers & small biz people.
    5) Make worker ownership the norm & let local communities figure it out for themselves. (Currently you can’t organize as a worker owned co-op in Wyoming… but it would make a huge difference for jobs being good paying if the people doing the labor were the same ones who were keeping the profits.)
    6) Tax the rich: wealth taxes, and much higher income taxes (instead of cutting them for wealthy people while the rest of us are struggling). Tax mega-corporations like Walmart (our biggest employer in Wyoming and they pay crappy wages…)
    7) Raise the minimum wage over 3-5 years to $15-20/hr depending on local cost of living. In paces where they have done this, it has increased spending at other businesses because people just have more money to work with.

  6. Great article with good facts and human interest. But I am saddened by the failure of some to yet grasp that coal is going away. If only we were to get serious about new options and new jobs and new opportunities! And that of course means new taxes, the big bugaboo. The legislature has got to get off of penalizing wind energy with taxes, and onto taxes that are more general. Why try to tax out of business our biggest opportunity for the future? And they have to accept that young people want amenities that older people don’t mind doing without. If you don’t want the young to leave, then give them a reason to stay. The reasons of people who are older and established don’t appeal to those who are trying to start families. Wyoming could thrive, but we have to make some changes to do that.

  7. An excellent article., beautifully written and researched. Now Dustin should do an article on how Wyomingites feel about climate change, and how it is expected to alter the state