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Wyoming officials blame Biden for coal mine layoffs

At least 19 workers will be discharged at the Black Butte mine, flaming tensions with the Biden administration over coal permitting and climate policies.

Conveyors pile coal at the Jim Bridger power plant outside Rock Springs on Jan. 19, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming leaders blame Biden administration coal policies as well as bureaucratic delays they claim are deliberate for layoffs at the Black Butte coal mine in southwest Wyoming.

Nineteen miners were notified this week that they’d lose their jobs, and more layoffs could be in the works, according to reports. 

WyoFile was unable to confirm the information with Black Butte Coal. Gov. Mark Gordon’s press secretary Michael Pearlman told WyoFile, “We don’t have any concrete information, although we had heard that there may be additional layoffs possible.”

The Black Butte mine, which is located east of Rock Springs and produces about 2 million tons of coal annually, employed 147 people during the third quarter of this year, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. One of the mine’s main customers is the Jim Bridger power plant, which Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company PacifiCorp owns.

Gordon and Wyoming’s congressional delegation say a prolonged delay regarding a pending federal coal lease at the mine helped lead to the layoffs, as well as environmental policies that will result in PacifiCorp converting two coal-burning power generation units at Jim Bridger to natural gas.

“This layoff is directly linked to the Biden administration’s refusal to approve the mine expansion application, which has been languishing before the Department of the Interior and the Office of Surface Mining and Environmental Enforcement for years,” Gordon said in a prepared statement this week, adding that he’s implored federal officials on the particular issue multiple times throughout 2023. “The mine has gone through rounds of environmental reviews and Interior continues to throw up additional paper obstacles.”

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) said the layoffs are the result of Biden’s “Green New Deal agenda.”

The U.S. is on track to cut its coal-based power capacity in half by 2026 from peak levels in 2011, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. (IEEFA)

“Seeing good people lose their jobs is tragic,” Lummis said in a prepared statement. “But what makes this situation particularly painful is the fact that it is a direct result of the Biden administration’s war on domestic energy production, and coal in particular.”

It was unclear as of this publication how much notice Black Butte employees were given regarding the layoffs. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services deployed a “rapid response” team to Sweetwater County this week to help workers plan for training and other potential employment opportunities.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is participating in the response efforts, as are some northeast Wyoming mine operators  that are looking to increase their rosters, according to Pearlman.

Jim Bridger battle

As the mine’s pending federal coal lease permit languished in recent years, PacifiCorp and state officials engaged in several legal and regulatory battles over coal emissions at the Jim Bridger power plant, particularly over regional haze.

PacifiCorp, in 2014, told the Environmental Protection Agency it would install “selective catalytic reduction” controls at two of four coal units at Jim Bridger; unit 1 by the end of 2022 and at unit 2 by the end of 2021. Instead, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility giant joined the state in drafting an alternative plan. Rather than install the expensive emission control facilities, it proposed meeting the federal regional haze parameters by operating the two units at lower capacities.

That led to a showdown with the EPA in 2022, with the agency threatening “corrective actions” that would shut down the units. Gordon orchestrated a sue-and-settle deal between the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and PacifiCorp to convert units 1 and 2 to natural gas in 2024, which ultimately resulted in the EPA backing off from its threat. That means coal demand at Jim Bridger — one of Black Butte’s primary coal customers — will be reduced by half in the coming year.

PacifiCorp has also agreed to analyze whether it would make economic sense for its ratepayers to apply carbon capture, use and storage technologies to Jim Bridger units 3 and 4, potentially preserving the use of coal at the plant. If the technology is not a prudent retrofit, however, PacifiCorp would convert those units to natural gas by 2030, according to the company’s planning documents.

Workforce conundrum

Elsewhere in southwest Wyoming, economic development officials are scrambling to find enough workers to fill thousands of construction jobs for at least five major industrial projects that may come to fruition in coming years.

A worker rides through the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant in 2019. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Plans for major trona mining and processing expansions are in the works, as well as a pair of carbon dioxide management projects and the $4 billion Natrium nuclear power plant. The developments, largely driven by private and federal investment in response to last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, could bring some 6,000 construction jobs, and hundreds of new permanent positions, to the area over the next five years, according to local officials.

statewide effort is underway to develop workforce training and recruitment programs, as well as plans for how to provide enough affordable housing to accommodate the activity, according to Kayla McDonald of the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition. 

The effort is likely of little comfort, however, for coal mine and coal plant workers who fear they might lose their livelihoods in the meantime, Wyoming AFL-CIO Executive Director Tammy Johson said.

“I feel horrible for the workers who’ve lost their life career, and hopefully they can find work at the other mines,” Johnson told WyoFile. “But this just shows how unprepared Wyoming is for a downturn in coal production. And we need to be prepared. We need to have a plan.”

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