To Save Coal Communities, Wyo Must First Change its Image

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)
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)

By Dave DodsonWyoFile

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?”

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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.

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.

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

 

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.