The Jim Bridger Power Plant in southwest Wyoming. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

A troubling turn of events has befallen Wyoming and its bedrock industry.

Here, the rolling plains are dotted with some of the most significant coal properties in the nation — including several of the country’s top-10 producing mines. The Powder River Basin produces an astounding 43% of the nation’s coal — an arrangement that has brought handsome revenues to the state and thousands of stable, well-paying jobs to its residents.

But the tide is turning. A mix of regulations, an abundant supply of cheap natural gas, new solar and wind energy projects and changing utility customer preferences have sparked a transition away from coal, and the industry has taken a hit. Across Wyoming over the last six months, power plants have shut down, mines have been abruptly shuttered and major coal operators have declared bankruptcy.

The implications will be far-reaching for a state that has long prided itself on powering the nation as “the Saudi Arabia of coal.” Not only for the hundreds of miners who have lost their jobs, but for the communities that have long relied on coal to fuel their economies, and for state government coffers. Coal has been a significant source of tax revenue for Wyoming, helping to fund public schools and services and keeping taxes on the general population low. Today, Wyoming collects half a billion dollars less from coal sources than it did during the peak a decade ago.

So what’s next for Wyoming coal? Nobody seems to have that answer. But one thing is for sure: An undercurrent of

WyoFile reporter Angus M. Thuermer, Jr., left, interviews an employee at Jim Bridger Power Plant. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

uncertainty runs through the state as the many people who depend on the industry — for paychecks, ancillary business profits, growing populations, municipal revenues and more — are in the dark about the about its future.

Much of these bedrock changes, and the subsequent attention of state media and politicians, has been on the Powder River Basin coal mines this summer, given the wild twists of Blackjewel’s catastrophic bankruptcy. But Gillette isn’t the state’s only coal town. Outside Rock Springs, an entire coal system — utility company, coal mines and power plant — are piled on top of each other in a symbiotic cluster at the Jim Bridger Plant.

To better understand the fate of the industry and how it will affect Wyoming, WyoFile reporters Andrew Graham and Angus M. Thuermer, Jr. recently visited the aging coal complex, which is carved into the scrubby sagelands near I-80 in the southwest corner of the state. There, they ventured deep underground to witness the extrication of a massive coal seam; talked to miners and nearby residents about the industry’s role in the economy and their lives; examined the workings of the massive power plant; spoke with political leaders about their constituents’ worries; toured reclaimed mine land; and learned how the complexities of modern market demands and advancements in technologies inform decision making in distant corporate offices — not always to the benefit of coal facilities like Jim Bridger.

Andrew Graham reporting at the Jim Bridger Power Plant. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The result of their reporting is WyoFile’s special edition, “Powering Down.” In this seven-story package, we examine the status and future of coal through the lens of a region that has long depended on it as an economic engine and cultural touchstone. We hear from people who have built their lives around coal mining and engineering. We break down the little-understood mechanisms of removing the resource from deep in the earth, and explore how faraway market demands can steer the fate of a Wyoming community. And through it, we investigate the viability of the industry in a world that seems to be moving away from it.

Because as Graham reports, on the heels of a year of upheaval, the next shoe could drop here for Wyoming’s coal industry.

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This is the first of seven stories in WyoFile’s “Powering Down” special edition. Click the links below to read more:

Jim Bridger: Lighting the country, laboring in the dark 

As coal’s future dims, uneasiness permeates Rock Springs

Life beneath the earth in Wyo’s only underground coal mine

PacifiCorp, DEQ pick less power over clean-coal technology

Coal or free-market conservatism? Lawmakers choose coal

Changing blades

 

Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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  1. “… and learned how the complexities of modern market demands and advancements in technologies inform decision making in distant corporate offices.”

    That is, all technologies under the sun (and blowing in the wind), except advanced coal-generated supercritical steam cycle electric power generation.

    Nearly every country in the world can build advanced, low CO2 emitting coal-based electric power generation units EXCEPT in the good ole USA.

    Perhaps the last ultra-supercritical steam cycle coal plant in the US is Turk.

    “AEP’s ultra-supercritical coal-fired Turk power plant may prove to be one such rarity: a great technological leap forward unlikely to ever be repeated again in the United States.

    The Turk project was announced in August 2006 but didn’t go online until seven years later. AEP spent those intervening years securing the necessary regulatory permits and fighting a battle in the Arkansas Supreme Court.

    Still, it wasn’t just a regulatory victory when the plant finally went into service on December 20, 2012. The event was also a technological victory: AEP had succeeded in bringing online the most efficient coal-fired commercial power plant ever built.

    Turk achieves the highest efficiencies around in coal power generation today; according to AEP, between 39 and 40 percent of the thermal energy available in the fuel comes out as electric power. This level of efficiency in extracting energy from coal allows Turk to use less of the stuff to produce the same amount of power. Less coal burned means less emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, carbon dioxide and particulate matter.” (Power Engineering, 6/12/2013)

    Turk emits over 20% less CO2, using over 20% less coal than our antique conventional steam cycle units. 20% less!

    And yet EPA has frozen out modernized coal plants making the permitting process for any new unit impossible.

    Instead we maintain 50 year old plants at much less efficiency and, consequently, at the expense of much more CO2, mercury, particulate, SO2 and NOx emissions. Most regrettably, we are needlessly burning through our children’s energy.

    Now that’s Progressive.

    Apparently President Trump did not get the memo.

    Obama won the war on coal.