How Natural Gas and the Electoral College Threaten Wyoming Coal

DBleizeffer-PRB-Eagle Butte
A "bone yard" outside the Eagle Butte coal mine north of Gillette, filled with old mining equipment. Eagle Butte was one of several coal mines to temporarily close in 2019 due to Blackjewel's bankruptcy. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

By Dave DodsonWyoFile

In the last presidential debate, the word “education” was mentioned once, “deficit” twice and “prescription drugs” not at all. Meanwhile “fracking” was brought up 17 times as the two candidates competed to be the most pro-fracking candidate in the race.

In 2020, natural gas is hip with both parties, and for that, Wyoming should be petrified. That’s because coal’s biggest threat can be found in  the economic and operational advantages of natural gas.

This bipartisan love affair with fracking has nothing to do with energy policy but a whole lot to do with the Electoral College.

The only time a presidential candidate’s airplane lands in Wyoming is to re-fuel, or to hold a fundraiser at the base of the Tetons, because Wyoming’s three electoral votes are reliably Republican, leaving us written off by both parties. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s campaign understands that he  cannot win without Pennsylvania, and he’s hinged his re-election hopes on fracking communities like Waynesburg.

Sure, Pennsylvania produces some coal (about a sixth what we produce), but with production down 20%, residents of that state can see the writing on the wall. Furthermore, the southwest corner of the state where Pennsylvania’s coal reserves lie is also home to massive shale reserves.

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Unlike Wyoming, Pennsylvania does better as electricity generation shifts from coal to gas. Which is why Trump has abandoned coal this election in favor of natural gas and the 25,000 workers — or voters — that he needs in order to keep his job.

Biden can afford to lose Pennsylvania and get across the finish line with either North Carolina or Arizona. But he knows if he can stop Trump in Scranton, he and his wife Jill can start picking out new drapes for the Oval Office.

And don’t get your hopes up that Biden and the Democrats will have an Inauguration Day conversion and ban fracking as Trump has warned. Two of Pennsylvania’s House Districts are swing districts, one of which is in the heart of the state’s shale reserves. Moreover, just as Pennsylvania is critical to the 2020 election, the same will be so in 2024. Bipartisan loyalty to fracking has nothing to do with energy policy, and everything to do with a lot of dinosaurs dying and turning to shale in what, millions of years later, became a key presidential swing state.

What’s more, the political influence of gas is only going to grow. The largest natural gas producer, Texas, is in play this election and had Vice President Biden not said in the last few seconds of the final debate that he favored phasing out oil and gas production, there was a chance he might have won the state’s 38 electoral votes. But there is no doubt that demographic shifts in Texas are moving it purple.

Texas produces less than 5% of the nation’s coal, and what it does mine is soft lignite coal, the red-headed stepchild of the coal industry. As the nation’s largest gas producer — and like Pennsylvania — Texas gains whenever a utility switches from coal to natural gas.

What we learned from the last two presidential debates is that both political parties have given up on coal — for the simple reason that the Powder River Basin is located in a state that has no political consequence to the Republican or Democratic parties.

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Furthermore, the Electoral College, combined with our fealty to a single political party, has left Wyoming voiceless in national politics, and our coal communities unrepresented.

We had some hope that the Republican Party — with the leadership and arm-twisting of our delegation — would take effective measures to expand coal exports and invest heavily in carbon capture technology. It turns out, however, they found someone prettier to go home with, natural gas: An energy substitute far more lethal to Gillette and Kemmerer than the Green New Deal.

What we know from the 2020 election and the Electoral College is that we’re officially on our own.

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 on small business and entrepreneurship. He is a frequent guest on Fox Business and CNBC. 

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