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Report: Wyoming coal infrastructure can be ‘repurposed’

An inventory of some 30 coal mine and coal plant facilities sets the stage for encouraging new uses, and helps communities facing economic transition.

Arch Resources' Black Thunder mine in northeast Wyoming spans many square miles. (GoogleEarth screenshot)

Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

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.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.