What is next for ‘Energy Capitol of the Nation’: ‘everybody gets worried about how long the coal industry is going to last’
GILLETTE, Wyo. (KOTA) - Gillette claimed the title of “Energy Capital of the Nation” thanks to coal. As restrictions tighten on mining and states strive to diversify their energy sources, coal mining has an uncertain future.
“In 2016 on March 31, I’ll never forget the day, 600 miners were laid off in one day,” remarked Rusty Bell, director of diversification for the Office of Economic Transformation.
At its peak production, more than 466 billion pounds of coal were shipped out, making coal the premier industry for Campbell County, in 2021 half that was produced.
“Everybody gets worried about how long the coal industry is going to last,” said Elvie Thomas, a coal mine worker. “Everybody has their own predictions.” Predictions that are overshadowed by a graveyard of unused train engines.
Bell says between 70 and 80 percent of the county’s tax revenue comes from mineral taxes. There is a cut in the budget when those trains sit. Bell doesn’t believe the mines will disappear overnight, but it takes planning to ensure jobs and people stay in Gillette. Before those coal miners pack up, the state’s leaders are at the drawing board trying to find ways to keep the rural state alive.
“Looking for other ways to use that coal, is important. Using that for added value products like activated carbon, carbon fiber, different things like that is important. It creates more jobs, using less coal,” said Bell, a former Campbell County Commissioner.
Mike Yin, a Wyoming Representative, doesn’t want to abandon mining he wants to change what the companies are digging for. “For long term, I think there are other mineral resources that we see will be used in the future. Whether it’s rare earth or lithium, Wyoming has quite an abundance,” said Mike Yin (D), a Wyoming state representative.
Shay Lundvall, Gillette’s newly-elected mayor, sits in the middle of a game of tug of war: keep reviving the coal industry or find new business. “The state legislature is very protective of the coal industry. That’s been the lifeblood of our state,” expressed Lundvall.
“We’re the lowest population state in the nation and our budget to be able to spend things on stuff like that is not super high without risking our budget to spend things that we need to provide for our citizens. Trying to balance the two for me is a more useful way spend funds on figuring out what new opportunities we can pursue,” said Yin.
Coal from Wyoming powers energy in 26 other states, but in 2011 California enacted low carbon fuel standards and other west coast states followed suit. However, Bell doesn’t think Wyoming should completely stop using a major resource in the state.
“We mine here, better than anyone else in the world,” Bell said strongly. “We’re more environmentally friendly to that mining, we reclaim better than anyone else and it continues to stay important as long as there is a coal market, much of that is out of our control.”
Bell suggests instead of completely closing the mines and tearing the infrastructure down, the state should become a hub for carbon use.
“So let’s say I’m Google and I want to be carbon negative, which that’s what they want to do. We can say hey we have lots of power, we have a place we’re sitting right on an interstate, we have good commercial air service, we’ll take your CO2 if you’re making CO2 from your plant, we’ll take it and we’ll use it, we’ll either use it in products or we’ll store it underground,” explained Bell.
Carbon use may be the future of the state but it’s the past that the people hold near and dear.
“You got guys that have been out there for 30-40 years, their whole life. Then you’ve got people my age that their dads did it, their moms did it, it’s like a big family. Everybody’s been doing it for years,” said Thomas.
As families battle to sustain a way of life, Gillette explores new business and the state of Wyoming grapples with a longtime industry turning to dust.
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