Gillette has long served as the hub of the Powder River Basin coal complex, which supplies about 40% of the nation's thermal coal for power generation. Mine workers and local businesses have scrambled to adjust to a coal industry downturn that may only get worse. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

Like it or not, much of America has a pretty poor opinion of coal.  

Two-thirds of Americans want the federal government to do more to reduce the effects of climate change, and three-quarters of our country want to prioritize renewables over fossil fuels. By the way, that view is not just held by liberal, Green-New-Deal socialists. Forty-nine percent of those who self-describe as “conservative” also want to see renewables prioritized over fossil fuels. On top of that, half of the population of states with coal mines favor phasing out all coal-fired power plants!

The Trump Administration did not bring back coal jobs for two reasons. First, as I’ve written in previous columns, coal’s true threat is not the Green New Deal but rather natural gas. Which means instead of slapping a bumper sticker on your pickup that reads, “If You’re Hungry and Out of Work, Eat an Environmentalist,” it should say: “… Eat a Natural Gas Producer.”

Second, except for politicians who want to use coal miners as props for getting votes, no one really cares much about our coal communities. How else can one explain the fact that despite its Republican leadership and having Donald Trump in the White House, Sen. Mike Enzi chairing the budget committee and Rep. Liz Cheney in Republican House leadership, Campbell and Sweetwater County families have gotten nothing but soundbites for years as six Wyoming coal operators went bankrupt? 

But take heart. All is not yet lost. We still have cards to play. The catch is that all of them — and I mean all of them — require us to build bridges of trust and common purpose with environmentalists and the moderate and Democratic slices of America. In doing so, we might just rediscover the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friend?” 

The initiatives that could save us — I’ll detail them in subsequent columns — all require buy-in from the very constituents and organizations that we have waged war with. A war, by the way, that we are clearly losing.

For example, expanding exports to displace Chinese and Indonesian coal has a compelling environmental argument as the fastest way to immediately reduce greenhouse emissions. Australia made that case quite well before the United Nations at the Paris Accords. Robust Australian exports to China followed. But instead of taking Australia’s clever path of working with environmental groups, we hopelessly file lawsuits against neighboring states and environmental organizations, wasting time and money with no hope of success.

We need a modern battle plan, which starts with finding new allies by reminding America that when the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were amended, it was Wyoming’s Powder River Basin’s low-sulfur coal — safely and inexpensively mined under the strictest environmental standards — that made our nation’s air healthier to breathe and our waters safer to drink. 

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We need to show America what our Wyoming landscape looks like after the mining is over, what we do to reclaim the land to a better state than before the mine opened. 

In explaining coal to the rest of the nation, we also need to put faces and names to the conversation. America needs to see Gillette not as a source of coal, but a community of schools, playgrounds, hospitals and small businesses. We need to remind America that these are the people and neighborhoods that bailed out the nation following the environmental legislation of the Nixon administration. The rest of the country needs to see Kemmerer not as a dot on a map, but a community of people. In order to get what we need, we need the rest of the country, along with Democrats and environmentalists, to know us as “coal communities” not “coal mines.”

When the country’s demand for anthracite coal went away, so did the mines and the neighborhoods near my grandfather’s coal mines in Appalachia. A few years back, I went to visit those communities, and all I found were outlines of once-vibrant small towns along the coal seams of the Appalachian Valley. 

To avoid that fate for Gillette or Kemmerer, we need a new plan that begin with finding common ground with those who have historically been our adversaries.

David Dodson is a resident of Wyoming and an entrepreneur who has helped create over 20,000 private sector jobs. He is on the faculty of the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he teaches courses...

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  1. Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Airlines, Big Corporations. Mr. Dodson, why, in your opinion, do these big entities generate so little trust among the Little People. By the way, I appreciate your intelligible essays and articles. (PS: Will our Valley Bookstore become a Big Bookstore under your watch?) I look forward to hearing from you on any of these issues. Feel free to contact me any time. Sincerely, Mike Calabrese, a little part of Jackson Hole for 47 years.

  2. Simply, if we want to burn it, we need to develop a responsible way to do it, its not a marketing problem. This kind of thinking is backwards, committing to the past instead of seeking real solutions.

  3. I think Dave gets the history close, but misses on a few key points.

    1. Warren Buffet owns most of Wyoming’s coal fired plants
    2. Warren Buffet owns most of Wyoming’s electrical distribution networks
    3. Warren Buffet owns most of Wyoming’s railway system
    4. Warren Buffet set up LLC’s to be the stalking horse developer for most of the Wind Energy installed in Wyoming and then his main companies bought that built out capacity.
    5 Warren Buffet’s Blue Sky initiative celebrates 20 years in Wyoming and it has completed its task of getting rate payers to finance his renewable investments while he shuts down Wyoming’s coal fired plant operations ten years earlier than expected.
    5. The electricity generated in Wyoming gets shipped out of state and we get nothing.

    The Republican Wyoming Legislature got elected by bashing Obama’s War on coal, while Warren ate Wyoming’s Lunch and Dinner. Now they recognize what is happening and they have passed some laws and have established the Wyoming Energy Authority (WEA). This group is going to do a “listening tour” so it may develop an Energy Plan, which sounds like all the other failed initiatives from the past? I almost put a team together to bid on the proposal to help write it, but I figured its “wired” for a favorite, so I will participate when this dog and pony comes to my town.

    We need Nuclear and to keep at least one coal fired plant open and operating in Wyoming.

    PS Washington’s use of the Clean Water Act to prevent black rocks from Wyoming being shipped to overseas was an over reach which may hurt the prospects of the future of the CWA. I have hated it since I heard it.

  4. This article makes a very good point about the major decision point Wyoming is at. I wish the author would have gone on with some more specifics. Maybe some examples about what this new cooperation would look like in Gillette and Kemmerer? Who should take action! What should they do?

  5. I hope WyoFile will address issue of coal companies lack of integrity when they do not stay current with tax payments, play fast and loose with savings for reclamation, give huge bonuses to CEOs, then claim bankruptcy. Pay your bills before paying bonuses.