Heating homes to charging the country: Wyoming grapples with a teetering coal industry

The late evening news on KEVN Black Hills Fox Sunday
Updated: Feb. 26, 2023 at 5:30 PM MST
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GILLETTE, Wyo. (KEVN) - Today coal is a multi-billion dollar industry, but that wasn’t always the case. In Campbell County, Wyoming, it started with heating a few homes and cooking a few meals. In the 1920s it took a commercial turn and quickly the area became the “Nation’s Energy Capital.”

Prairie grass spotted with sagebrush covered, what is now known as the Powder River Basin. Then pioneers settled in the area and found surface-level coal to use for their own purposes, like keeping warm during the winter. When the first coal mine, Wyodak, owned by Homestake opened in 1923, they set the stage for more coal exploration and mining to happen.

Decades later the coal industry morphed into the energy industry. The oil boom of the 1950s and 1960s put a strain on Gillette’s services, schools, roads, and housing.

“So then on the tail of that oil boom, you had the coal mines opening, so that was a difficult transition to make sure those folks had what they needed,” said Robert Henning, museum director of the Campbell County Rockpile Museum.

Oil boom to coal blast, Gillette grew rapidly, adding to the strain on infrastructure. “In the early ‘70s, it was a boom economy, they had trailers for schools, they did not have buildings,” claimed Larry Reznicek, human resources director, Campbell County School District.

Gillette grew so fast; Henning says there wasn’t time for city leaders to plan the layout of the town, stating “You can see it on the landscape.”

“In the 80s there was a downturn and then there was an upturn when depending on the government and their desire to use domestic energy versus foreign energy, oil embargos, all of those things played a role in that,” The downturn Henning refers to is an employment downturn.

The election of President Ronald Reagan seemed to be promising for the mining industry, especially after his predecessor, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill regulating surface coal mining. While coal production grew, employment in Wyoming mines decreased, beginning in 1982 when more than 300 jobs disappeared. By the 21st century, the scale began to tip, and employment rose.

“There was several booms over time where production picked up and employment increased, but the peak would have been in that 2008 range,” the peak Henning refers to was at the end of the Bush Administration. Campbell County Coal Mines saw more than 6,760 people scooping 466 million tons of coal annually. The steady growth provided a stable supply of good-paying jobs for northeast Wyoming.

“The mining employment has been very steady and so you’ve seen couples, families, three-four generations of the same family working at the same mine. So that has provided a very solid foundation of employment for our community,” stated Henning whose family worked in the coal mines.

Between the environmental impact and diversifying the nation’s energy supply, the coal industry has dipped into a slump. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that as of October 2022, burning coal accounts for 20% of total US energy-related Carbon Dioxide emissions. Because of the national attention and increased regulations, hiring and production have slowed at the mines.

Elvie Thomas who started working in the coal mines after the 2008 peak said, “You showed up to work and you didn’t know if you were going to stay or if you were going to go.” Thomas began before the massive layoffs in 2016.

“When I first started it was...I mean we were non-stop work, work, work and in 2016 over 500 people got laid off and things slowed down,” expressed Thomas.

The success of the coal industry raised an affluent amount of money for Wyoming raising the education system to number 5 in the US. However, as coal mines close, the tax base suffers, causing wallets in the state to begin to dry.

Editors note: this is part one of three in a series on Wyoming’s coal industry titled: Wyoming’s Life Blood.