The Past And Future Of Wyoming Coal Is Tied To Regulation
Residents, lawmakers and workers in coal-producing states are worried about the future of their natural resource. A combination of environmental concerns, increased affordability of renewables, and low natural gas prices seem to be conspiring against the hard black rock.
Then there are the regulations. Perhaps the most impactful one is the Environmental Protection Agency's rule to cut mercury emissions from power plants. Those unable to meet the tight new standards will have to shut down. Another is the proposed and soon-to-be finalized Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions. But 45 years ago, it was another sweeping federal environmental regulation that actually gave Wyoming coal its start.
In the wake of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the amendments that followed, many utility companies started using Wyoming's coal which has less than half the sulfur content of Appalachian coal. Demand skyrocketed as did the number of jobs [.pdf]. In 1970, Wyoming employed just 621 coal miners but a decade later, there were more than 6,000.
Coal miner Beverly Baughman and her husband Rick Swanson live in Rozet, a town in Wyoming's remote, coal-rich Powder River Basin. Baughman started as a roughneck in the oilfields and then switched over to coal in 1985. Swanson was around in the earliest days of Wyoming's coal boom. In the early 1970s, he helped build what is now the largest coal mine in the U.S., known as Black Thunder.
"It was the biggest construction project I had ever worked on and I was just a little old tiny piece of it, you know," Swanson said. "I didn't know how big it would get."
Now retired, Swanson said that the industry has been good for them and their large extended family because of the steady work and fair pay. The couple and their handful of horses, now live on a ranch ringed by rolling prairie and mountains in the distance.
"The mines gave me the opportunity, with very little education, to make money," Swanson said. "We've had an excellent economy here. You're never hungry. You can always find a job if you want one."
Nationally, coal production is down. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of employees at U.S. coal mines decreased by more than 10 percent. Wyoming's coal economy has not been hit as hard as that of other states, such as West Virginia or Kentucky.
There are signs though. Many coal-fired power plants across the country have already partially or fully shut down, at least five have closed in early 2015. No matter the politics of coal or the mine's productivity, fewer coal-fired power plants mean less coal will be burned.
So, what would this region look like if coal went away?
"We would look like West Virginia," said Beverly Baughman. "There would be no jobs. Rick and I came here and we ended up in the sweet part of life, but the kids that I see come work for the mine now, I tell them 'are you really sure that this is what you want to do?' Because this job might not be here."
None of Baughman and Swanson's children went into mining, but their nephew Philip Carstens did. He moved recently to Wyoming from California for a coal mining job that he said he loves. But he doubts his son will follow in his footsteps.
"The way things are, it probably won't be around that long, I imagine," Carstens said.
The substantial regulatory threats to the industry are being challenged in court. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in March over whether the EPA should have considered the cost of mercury regulations while the agency was developing them. When it comes to the Clean Power Plan, a lawsuit brought against the EPA by 11 states – including Wyoming – has gone to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. Oral arguments in that case began in mid-April.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.