A worker at the Jim Bridger Plant. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Wyoming’s coal industry, which has paid much of the freight for state government and countless Wyoming families for decades, has fallen on hard times.

(BH Imaging)

From a high of 462 million tons in 2011, the state’s production dropped to 324 million tons last year. Large coal company bankruptcies have rocked Wyoming communities, and electric utility giant PacifiCorp has announced plans to retire several coal-plant units in the state early.

Lawmakers and officials, in turn, are scrambling for ways to minimize the damage to Wyoming’s flagship industry and soften the blows to local economies. Are they looking in the right places? 

Whether legislation and policy can ameliorate the pain of economic transition is an open question. To some observers, efforts to save coal are not only futile, they also break with Wyoming’s long championing of free-market conservatism and carry the specter of unintended consequences. What is certain is that things are changing, fast, and that when the whirlwind of economic chaos and legislative reaction settles, Wyoming will be playing by a new set of rules.

WyoFile set out to examine what’s at stake in this special edition, “Re-regulation.”

For this package, three reporters took a step back from the individual elements to examine them collectively and in context. All three stories involve efforts to re-regulate Wyoming’s electric utility system. They looked at moves by state lawmakers to pressure an independent regulatory board to fight for coal. They dug into the nitty gritty of bills currently under consideration, which some worry could lead the state down the path of deregulation and ultimately reorganize the electric utility system. And they chronicled several scenarios proposed for extending the life of coal-plant units, scenarios that would veer sharply from traditional plant uses.  

Guest columnist and UW economist Jason Shogren applies the lens of theory. Economies change and transitions are inevitable, he writes, while acknowledging that such truisms don’t make the choices facing Wyoming any easier or the consequences more palatable. 

Whatever the approach, Shogren notes, making the transition successfully will require hard work, innovation, creative thinking and real economic commitment. 

This is the first of six pieces in WyoFile’s “Re-regulation” special edition. Click the links below to read more:

Old plants, new ideas: Who might buy a retired coal power unit?

The Wyoming PSC’s uncomfortable moment in the spotlight

Chasing coal-plant longevity, bills open door to deregulation

The great coal transition, an economist’s perspective

Regs helped Wyo’s coal industry. Weakening them won’t save it.

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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