There’s a mutual dependence between rural communities and the energy companies they support. The longer it exists the more their cultures and identities are intertwined.
That’s why it’s especially painful when an industry declines and familiar corporate neighbors sell out to new owners. As an industry bleeds money and jobs, it also begins to pull back on charitable giving — just as the same forces create more need for those services.
In March I traveled to Gillette to find out what the declining coal industry means to those living on the margins, and to those committed to meeting their needs. I filed this report; “Coal corporate giving tumbles just as communities need it most.”
As a journalist who follows the coal industry I was delighted to discover a Twitter account by a locomotive engineer on the Powder River Basin route. Alan Nash, or @VernChronicles, shares dozens of photos each month depicting the landscape, wildlife and industry along the 150 miles of his beloved #WyoBraska route.
I drove to Bill, Wyoming one blustery February day to visit with Alan in person, and write this profile: “View from the Rails: Train engineer chronicles 25 years of PRB coal“
Bad news seemed to pile up for towns in southwest Wyoming in the fall of 2019. Just as PacifiCorp outlined plans to shutter several coal-fired power units in the region, Halliburton laid off nearly 200 workers at its Rock Springs, Wyoming headquarters.
Like many rural communities across the West, the towns of Rock Springs, Green River, and Kemmerer face a major transition away from coal. At the same time, their populations grow older, making it difficult to keep and attract younger people.
I spoke with community leaders who want to both hold onto the region’s legacy industries while beginning to take actions to build a more diverse economy.
Read the story, Job loss and youth exodus: towns grapple with energy transition. (Photo courtesy of WyoFile.com and RJ Pieper)
In January, 2020, I published Is PRB coal headed for gradual decline or sheer cliff? at WyoFile, drawing attention to a growing but often overlooked aspect of a shrinking mining industry.
There’s a huge amount of attention to mining data and market analysis as people try to understand where the coal mining industry is heading. Late in 2019, I noticed that leaders in Wyoming tend to focus on data trend lines — how many years until declining demand might force the closure of one or more mines in the basin, for example. What the data and trends don’t show, however, are the new vulnerabilities for each mine in the basin as the larger industry continues to serve a shrinking market.
“I agree that the Powder River Basin is not going to ride a gentle glidepath into oblivion decades from now,” Headwaters Economics Research Director Mark Haggerty said. “More likely, markets or policy will cross thresholds where things begin to happen very quickly. We may be in that now, or it could still be off in the future. But likely not far.”
Damn the parachutes, the story of coal communities in crisis needs to be told by reporters who live in coal country and who are invested in the future of these rural areas. In 2020, I teamed up with reporter Mason Adams, WyoFile and Energy News Network to produce “Transition in Coal Country.” The six-part series examines Wyoming and Appalachia; a story about coal’s decline in rural America, and about how these communities might survive beyond coal. The project was supported by the Just Transition Fund. The series is available as an ebook, “Reckoning In Coal Country,” at Amazon.
I was invited by WyoHistory.org to write about Wyoming’s coal-bed methane gas boom — a chaotic period for the state from 1998 to 2008. I was fortunate enough to have covered the play from its onset in the 1990s as reporter for the Gillette News-Record, then as energy reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune. Here’s the story I published in April 2015, summarizing some of the main challenges and driving forces behind the boom and bust.