Coal trains pass under the conveyor belt for the Dry Fork Station power plant. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Troubled times continue to grow in the Powder River Basin. This summer two large coal companies declared bankruptcy, impacting four major coal mines in Wyoming. While Cloud Peak and Blackjewel’s respective bankruptcies played out very differently, both point to the fact that Wyoming’s coal industry is facing increasing challenges.

The U.S. coal industry, including here in Wyoming, has been in trouble for years. We felt this pain three years ago when Arch, Alpha and Peabody all filed for bankruptcy, and we’re feeling it again this year. The coal market has been declining since 2008, and we must start thinking about what’s next for our state.

To help our coal-dependent communities get to “what’s next,” we could use some help. We need something to bridge the gap between a fully employed and operational Wyoming coal industry of the past and a future where mines are closing and jobs are disappearing. Whether that happens in six months or 20 years, we really don’t know. But one thing we do know is, we can’t continue to pin our hopes on a robust coal economy — those days are over. 

We may think we have years to figure out this whole new-economy plan, but putting off meaningful discussions doesn’t prevent the inevitable. It just makes us less prepared. It’s like when we look at things in our rearview mirrors: Objects may be closer than they appear. We may not have as much time as we think.

Our coal communities need solutions now, which is why HR 2156, the bi-partisan federal RECLAIM Act, is so important. The bill — which was introduced in April 2019 — simply expedites spending $1 billion in already-collected Abandoned Mine Land funds to assist communities like ours that are struggling in the face of the coal industry’s decline. This money is earmarked to help transition our communities to sustainable new economies by spurring economic activity.

Wyoming is a top recipient of AML funds, and we have used those funds well since 1977. We have reclaimed over 25,000 acres of land and restored these mined-out areas for other uses, such as agriculture, recreation and wildlife habitat. AML funds have also helped restore miles of impaired streams and address many other impacts.     

Just last year, more than 550 people were employed by AML contracts all around the state. These are good jobs that provide economic growth. More AML funds could put the employees laid off in the bankruptcies to work. And in the meantime, our state leaders can work on finding ways to permanently diversify our economy and our state revenue stream.

The RECLAIM Act is not a permanent fix for Wyoming’s coal woes, but it is an opportunity for Wyoming and other coal states to help create jobs and fund some economic development. 

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Whether we like it or not, the U.S. coal industry is standing at the edge of a cliff, but it doesn’t have to take us all over the edge. We need a bridge. 

Wyoming’s D.C. delegation should  support and push for the passage of the RECLAIM Act for the benefit of Wyoming and other coal communities.

Nancy Sorenson

Nancy Sorenson is a retired cattle rancher from Sheridan County and a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

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  1. The AML Slush Fund:

    “Misusing the fund is a tantalizing prospect for a variety of special interests. For example, Congress punished the state of Wyoming for spending its reclamation funding on unrelated public works projects. Mine workers’ unions have successfully managed to wheedle Congress into diverting abandoned mine funds to their benefits programs and have recently sought to divert even more. Fortunately, these abuses make up only a small amount of of the fund’s disbursements. Everything considered, the AML has largely maintained its integrity.”

    That last part: “the AML has largely maintained its integrity” has been played for laughs in Wyoming.

    Many many years ago, our then state rep Keith Gingery insisted that AML funds were only spent on AML reclamation projects. It always amazed me that a lawyer in the statehouse could be so clueless about AML spending right under his nose. Having spent considerable time on engineering projects paid for with AML funds that reclaimed nothing other than old asphalt, I assured Keith that Wyoming was using the monies as a slush fund. He denied it, The Feds confirmed it which is why funds were withheld. Now Nancy Sorenson wants further to abandon the abandoned mines. Add the self-bonding nonsense that Wyoming allowed mining companies to engage in and one can see a future with fewer funds for responsible reclamation in Wyoming.

    The best way to correct the loss of high paying extractive jobs and address their under-educated labor force is not to redirect AML funds and use them as welfare payments from the feds. Start collecting taxes to pay for your spending like every other state.

  2. Where did the author, our Congressional d elegation , or anybody else ever get the idea that the Abandoned Mine Lands funds were intended for economic development or offsetting job losses ? AML was intended tor eclaim abandone mines ( duh ! ) and help with reclamation of fallow minesites. AML was also intended to assist underground miners with coping with Black Lung Disease . Nowhere in the legislation does it say anything about economic bailouts of disaffected mining communities. Just because Wyoming paid gobs of money into AML does not mean were are entitled to use the money for our preceived pressing needs in the face of a few hundred job losses. That is fallacy ; political usurpation .

    The American coal industry hit peak employment in 1925 when over 800,000 miners and workers were mining. Proportional to today’s population that would be the equivalent of 2.5 million miners. The sharp edge of that plateau came in roughly 1945 when American railroads and American industry started converting from coal to petroleum, largely completed by the late 1950’s, when coal mining started its fall. Last year there was a grand total of (maybe) 50,000 coal miners in America. Wyoming lost what ? – around a thousand miners since peak coal in 2008 ?? That is statistically insignificant in the bigger picture over the long haul. But Gillette and Campbell COunty are crying as if it were the End of the World.

    Guess what ? Anyone who was literate and looked up could see the handwriting on the wall in 50 foot tall red letters for years and years… and Wyoming chose not to see it nor begin the process of diversifying away from dependence on coal. We need to quit kicking that old black dying horse named King Coal with our steel toed boots and get a new horse.**

    The whining of mining is falling on deaf ears. Welcome to Economic Reality 101.

    ** P.S. Since the economic meltdown of 2008 and the surge away from fossil fuels to newer energy sources , the state of Colorado has added over 35,000 new jobs in alternative energy. Perhaps the suits and ties in the Wyoming statehouse , the blue collars in Campbell County , and everyone in Gillette should have paid more attention to that…

  3. This is an absolute farce. The RECLAIM Act is just another attempt to take money from the AML Fund and people of the coal communities to put in the pockets of businessmen. There are no “excess funds”, as Senator Manchin would say, because if you ask me ALL the funds could be used to help those ravaged by past mining activities.