New West

By Todd Wilkinson

Sunset at reclamation area near Antelope Coal Mine/ Photo by Peter Godfrey/BLM

The New West: Wyoming’s bet on coal is now busting the state

Wyoming is the least-populous state in the nation and people are leaving again.

It was little more than three years ago when then-Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead evinced the look of a high-stakes, high-rolling, high-risk gambler and held a press conference in Cheyenne.

Despite what numerous national energy commodity experts were saying about its dim outlook, Mead declared that, in terms of Wyoming’s future, the state was “doubling down” on its defiant bet that coal mining would deliver the Equality State to economic prosperity.

The gambit came only months after Mead, along with other elected officials in the state, claimed the US Environmental Protection Agency, under then-President Barack Obama, “was shutting down the coal industry.”

And this followed years when policymakers bent over backwards to accommodate large coal producers whose message essentially was: trust us, let us do what we want, help us open new coal tracts on federal public land, and we’ll make you rich; we’ll contribute to your campaigns for elected office; we’ll rhetorically help you claim that the science documenting climate change is a lie; we’ll keep your citizens employed; we’ll pay taxes so you never have to think about pondering other revenue sources; and we’ll honor our commitment to heal the environment if we ever leave, which will be a long time from now.

Three short years later, the coal industry in Wyoming is in dire straits.

One by one, major companies are reeling. Some have declared bankruptcy, putting thousands of miners out of work, leaving them to worry if companies will actually honor their long-promised pension obligations. Those overseeing state and local governments are also in full panic mode.

Those who stridently defended the coal industry— who chose to ignore the reality that proliferating extraction of cheaper natural gas was destroying the market for coal—now have to contend with historians who will judge them harshly.

Travel back in time half a decade and it would have been impossible to ignore the cautionary advisements of professor Rod Godby, affiliated with the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming. He correctly said a harsh reckoning was coming for the state.

Godby, whom I interviewed, wasn’t alone in his predications but he certainly was among the bravest. His candor required incredible courage to publicly question the coal industry’s swagger in state politics.

Along with it, Wyoming’s three-member Congressional Delegation has helped President Donald Trump repeal nearly every regulatory obstacle the coal industry didn’t like. Even with that, the prognosis for the industry isn’t good.

Lest we forget, state lawmakers earlier threatened to withhold funding for the state’s most prominent institution of higher learning, the University of Wyoming, if any of its faculty openly questioned the power of coal interests. Even an outdoor fine art installation alluding to climate change on campus was ordered removed because it offended elected officials loyal to industry.

In Cody, some local school board members, in deference to coal, suggested that the science of climate change be downplayed or stricken from public school textbooks.

Before me right now is a policy statement U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney released in 2016 when she was running for a House seat.

Besides her straight-faced insistence that the opinions of experts on climate change at the National Academy of Sciences and other respected institutions are based on “junk science,” Cheney continued to assert the now-debunked position that a War On Coal was being waged by the Obama Administration and environmentalists.

To accommodate the desires of coal lobbyists, Cheney vowed to rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (which, according to experts, was only a minor factor in the decline of coal). Cheney devoted herself to “repealing mercury and air toxic standards,” “repealing the regional haze rule,” “lifting the moratorium on coal leases on federal lands,” “enacting legislation that prohibits the regulation of carbon dioxide,” “abolishing the EPA,” and, among other things, “building a nationwide coalition to fight for our coal industry.”

Cheney vowed to give the coal industry everything it wanted. Today what is it giving Wyoming in return?

We know, with the clarity of hindsight, that the truth eventually wins out over those who insist it doesn’t apply to them. If any “war” is being waged against coal, it is by the market forces of natural gas. Wyoming today is worse off not because it held the coal industry to account, but because it didn’t and has no back-up plan.

During the boom years, Wyoming politicians refused to accept the reality that the demise of coal was rapidly approaching.

“We can win this fight, but to do so, we must bring national attention and focus to this issue,” Cheney said in 2016.

Is it not ironic that, in a state where the federal government is frequently cast as an enemy, some miners and devastated communities may someday need federal disaster aid? To see how Mr. Trumps’s pledge to resurrect the fortunes of “beautiful, beautiful, clean, clean coal” is faring, he ought to visit Gillette.

About The Author

The New West, Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal ( devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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