Wyoming is home to a wealth of mining and coal-fired power generation infrastructure that will eventually be decommissioned, razed and shipped away, even as the state courts dozens of new manufacturing and other industrial projects.

But a new report finds opportunity in repurposing such facilities — which include railspurs and industrial-scale connections to the power grid — with the added benefit of sparing undeveloped landscapes that are home to vital wildlife habitat, cultural and recreational resources.

The 313-page “Coal Infrastructure Reuse” report by The Nature Conservancy includes a comprehensive inventory of coal mine and coal-power plant facilities in the state, and analyzes the potential for other businesses to make use of them.

“We’re hoping that it can serve as a baseline for marketing these sites, and hopefully we can create some sort of structural plan for systemically getting these sites reused over the next 20 to 30 years,” TNC Energy Programs Manager Justin Loyka said.

The report analyzes more than 30 major coal mine and coal-power sites in the state that collectively span some 8,800 acres and represent $980 million in infrastructure replacement costs. The infrastructure — and the existing workforce that powers it — represents a tantalizing, ready-for-use opportunity for companies looking to set up manufacturing or install renewable energy generation or coal-to-products businesses, the report’s authors argue. 

“It looks at where there’s opportunity to keep people employed, keep generating revenue and utilize these assets to bring in new economic investment while protecting landscapes elsewhere,” Loyka said.

Needs and opportunities

The idea for the inventory and reuse study came from a legislative discussion in which lawmakers asked about assets that might be at risk of closure, but could be put to use rather than decommissioned.

“Nobody could answer these questions,” Loyka said. “There was a clear knowledge gap.”

TNC found eager partners in Gillette-based energy consulting company Waypoints Wyoming LLC and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association in conducting the study, as well as cooperation among several local economic development groups, many of which were already engaged in trying to attract new industrial businesses.

Dignitaries celebrate the groundbreaking for the Innovation Center coal refinery field demonstration project north of Gillette on Sept. 2, 2022. It’s located at a former coal mine that was decommissioned and put to reuse. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Though the prospect of mine and coal plant closures is daunting for communities that have hosted them for decades, the need to eventually backfill the jobs and revenue they’ve supported is well understood among locals, Loyka said.

Power markets and climate policies have driven coal use to its lowest point in more than a decade, and the outlook for Wyoming coal is a continued decline, according to energy industry experts. Wyoming coal production has slipped by 49% since its peak in 2008, according to the study, costing the state more than 2,000 direct jobs.

Wyoming’s largest electric utility, PacifiCorp, recently updated its plans for future power generation. It intends to convert most of its coal-fired power fleet in the state to natural gas while setting retirement dates for other units. Arch Resources — Wyoming’s second largest coal producer — recently ended production at its Coal Creek mine and says it plans to close its flagship Black Thunder mine in the Powder River Basin.

Positive planning

The intent of the TNC report, and efforts to establish a queue of potential businesses to reuse coal facilities, isn’t to usher coal mines or coal power plants to the door, said Jim Ford, founder of Gillette-based Waypoints Wyoming LLC, who co-authored the report. It’s to plan for the future.

“It’s important to this state — and it’s important for my friends and neighbors — to know that nobody wants to hasten the demise of coal,” said Ford, who also serves as a Campbell County Commissioner. “The decline in coal is happening outside our ability to influence those decisions. I just think it’s really important that we recognize that reality and plan for the future in a positive way.”

This map depicts Wyoming coal mine and coal power facilities. (The Nature Conservancy)

The effort also is not intended to relieve mining companies of their environmental obligations, Loyka said. Under federal law, surface mines must fill in pits, recontour the surface and reseed native grasses to support wildlife and livestock grazing. Much of that reclamation will move forward, even if there’s great success in re-utilizing shops, rail spurs and other infrastructure, Loyka said. 

“We’re not looking to hasten [the closure] of anything,” Loyka said. “And nobody’s arguing to release [mining operators] from their obligations.”

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. I am glad to see a few people speaking out publicly about the looming disaster of Wyoming’s transition to a new economy, yet there is plenty of disconnect apparent. Let me quickly state that there are three huge problems that must be addressed and soon employment, environment and energy.

    Employment: Wyoming will never benefit greatly from this so-called modern energy economy. Wyoming is going to get wind-turbines because, as PacifiCorp stated in a recent PSC hearing, those resources are here. The underlying manufacturing and tech services will always be elsewhere. What Wyoming will get is low-level jobs in operations of wind plants and some support services – think janitorial and waste management. There will be new tax revenues that do not replace what is lost, but which will go to supporting government employment and services. No reasonable economy can be based on this.
    While doing some research for an essay online at another site, I did a cursory calculation suggesting that shuttering Wyoming’s energy economy could leave Wyoming with the sort of per capita income of Mississippi.

    Environment: There is no way to put this lightly. Sprawling wind energy plants will be destructive of views, vistas, night skies, quiet environment, migratory and soaring birds, and winter range of game animals. The article mentions 8,800 acres of these so-called brownfields for reuse, but currently permitted wind plants in just Albany and Carbon counties amount to nearly 600,000 acres. And wind plant developers prefer using the same ground that big game prefers for winter range. We have just witnessed an unprecedented winter mortality of big game – it will be much worse in a future winter with wind plants occupying needed range.

    Energy: I gave public input at a recent PSC hearing that I hope showed that wind and solar cannot operate reliably without natural gas and coal to balance the energy production. Wind energy is not high quality energy. The effective load carrying capacity of wind and solar energy, without balancing, is around 10% of the nameplate rating per PacifiCorp. Nameplate rating is what the plant costs. So, one pays a lot for wind and solar infrastructure and receives poor reliability. At present the utilities, Pacificorp included, paper over this problem by speaking of wind+storage. But there are no credible plans for this storage – they won’t even use appropriate units for the quantity of storage needed.

    Finally, this rushed transition is unnecessary. I can use data from the IPCC, the EIA, and many other highly qualified sources to make a valid argument for measured responses. I won’t here though because to do so just labels a person a “denier” or extreme right-winger of some sort. WyoFile does it too. Reasoned discussion seems unwelcome

  2. China opens two new coal generating plants a week as America converts to energy available on occasion plan. Small nuclear plants for electric available now but wind and solar an ecological nightmare.

  3. TODAY, CHINA is adding 48 new coal fired power plants. They are are under construction now. And China expects to use coal for the next 30 years!
    48 New plants on top of over 1,000.
    The same is going on in India. Add Germany.
    Get rid of Wyoming coal mines?? Why are our mines not feeding this massive increase in the need of coal.
    Reality folks – not one single utility company is able to supply enough electricity today to meet consumers needs. Now add millions of electric cars and trucks. Remove natural gas and propane in peoples homes. Make it all electric? When you toss out all the enviro pie-in-the-sky gibberish, it’ll be 30-40-50 years before we even get close.
    And of course, that’ll happen when someone faces the slavery of under 12 year old children in Congo mines, Uyghurs in Chinese mines and 500,000 lbs of earth moved for every ONE Single Tesla battery.
    Tell us – are we insane to buy into this total nonsense??? Oil, gas and coal. The ONLY reliable energy sources for decades to come.

    1. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone who spouts the type of stuff you just wrote could back it all up with well documented, factual information and not just political opinion? 500,000 pounds of earth moved to make one battery? Come on…