It’s a familiar refrain: Hunker down. Weather the storm. Ask God for one more boom.
Thirty four people died on the job in Wyoming in 2016, the same as the year before. The workers were a cross section of the most well-known careers in the Cowboy State, from truck drivers and coal miners to agricultural workers and oilmen, according to a workplace fatalities report released Thursday by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Research and Planning division.
Wyoming’s fatalities stand out nationally, where 36 of the 50 states saw an increase in workplace deaths.
The 2016 report is compiled in collaboration with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is the “gold standard” for comparing workplace fatalities across the states. The data is drawn from a variety of sources, including OSHA, coroner and police reports.
Six people in Wyoming’s agricultural sector died working in 2016 and four in mining or oil and gas.
Transportation incidents represented 41 percent of the fatalities, which falls below the long-term, national trend of 56 percent. Not all of the workplace fatalities in transportation were Wyomingites; many are counted in the state statistics because those individuals died within the borders, such as truckers involved in highway crashes, said David Ballard, a state economist who co-authored the report
There is some evidence that transportation safety has improved, the economists said. Though in regard to those traveling in state, Wyoming regulators have less control over the safety measures of those out-of-state companies, he said.
The fatalities count also includes suicides that happen at work.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why fatalities go up and down as they are often the result of random accidents, Ballard said.
“The movement year to year doesn’t necessarily mean that workplaces have become a lot safer or more dangerous,” he said. “Wyoming, to hold steady, that does seem to be some good news compared to what is going on in most other places.”
In part, economic improvements can mean more workers are on the job increasing the potential for serious incidents that lead to fatalities, he said.
That’s an observation that is especially relevant in places like Wyoming when looking at deaths in the oil and gas sector.
The state is often ranked as one of the worst states for worker death, leading to periodic pushes for change. The state’s high death rate is in part due to the percentage of the workforce employed in dangerous professions like the oil or gas fields, some say.
“I think it’s a really safe assumption that our numbers go up and down with the boom and bust cycle with the energy economy,” said Meredith Towle, state epidemiologist. That trend has been noted by national studies, she said.
Workplace deaths over the last two decades peaked in 2007, when 48 Wyoming workers died on the job. At the time, the gas fields were booming and crude oil was priced around $75 a barrel, adjusted for inflation.
Over the last few years, particularly in 2015 and 2016, oil and gas economies tanked.
“That may explain why fatalities did not increase here,” said Ballard, the state economist.
The boom and bust phenomenon has been less true of fatalities in Wyoming’s other strong fossil fuel economy, coal, which has until recently been a less tumultuous market than oil and gas. It’s also a less scattered industry.
With a single location and the presence of federal and state inspectors, mines are more contained. Oil and gas, on the other hand, has thousands of well sites and a multitude of contractors working at a given drilling site, said Towle.
“Coalescing around a common safety practice is hard when you are talking about so many different employers and so many different sites,” she said.
Towle puts out an annual fatalities report that details the circumstances of each death in Wyoming, comparing those incidents to previous years. The 2017 report is not yet available.
“Things don’t really change all that much from one year to the next,” Towle said. “You have to look at that data in a historical way to see trends.”
What is the long-term look at Wyoming deaths on the job?
“There hasn’t been any sustained change in workplace fatalities in Wyoming in quite a long time,” she said.
Sage grouse numbers are likely to decline next year, part of a downswing in the bird’s population that happens about every decade, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The health of the finicky bird with the comical mating call has been the subject of heated debate in recent years as state and federal agencies worked to stall a rapid decline over the last century. The push to stave off an endangered species listing is reflective of some of the diverse interests in the state, and brought Wyoming agencies, federal agents, industries, ranchers and environmentalists into the same room to build a plan.
But within the larger, and often political, discussion of saving the grouse population, is the natural ebb and flow of its numbers, with about 10 years passing between peak population counts.
According to a collection of wings from male and female birds, young and old from the last hunt season, the bird’s numbers are likely headed down.
“We are on the declining cycle for sage grouse right now,” said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “In the big picture, it’s not a concern.”
Judging from about 2,000 wings collected statewide from hunters, biologists estimate that each hen produced about 1.2 sage grouse chicks earlier this year that survived into the fall.
A stable population produces around 1.5 chicks per hen, biologists say.
Come spring, when biologists head out to observe mating areas where males congregate waiting for hens to come and breed, those counts are likely to show a decline under 10 percent, Christiansen said.
“It probably won’t be noticeable to most people,” he said.
This year’s wing count data also showed more variation than normal across the state, with some regions like the Rawlins and Baggs area producing fewer chicks per hen. It’s not clear why that’s the case, Christiansen said.
Wyoming is home to about 40 percent of the sage grouse population in the West, though birds are found in 11 other states and across the Canadian border. The state has taken a central role in protecting the species, both to preserve the larger habitat that sage grouse and other species depend on, and to avoid a federal endangered species listing.
An endangered species designation for sage grouse would force a number of strict provisions that would likely put significant pressure on oil and gas development, one of Wyoming’s key economic drivers. The listing would also be hard on ranchers and mine owners. Many environmentalists fought to prevent a listing too, wary that protecting the bird in such a way would impact so many industries and interests it could undermine conservation efforts long term.
A coordinated state effort to address the population decline began nearly a decade ago, and federal strategies that mirrored Wyoming’s approach were put in place in 2015. A recent attempt to update those federal plans, and potentially change them, has sparked controversy this year from those concerned that industry interests would trump habitat protection.
Of particular concern to critics of change was rhetoric from the Trump Administration about establishing population targets as part of the management strategy. The bird’s population cycle is one of the reasons that approach is problematic, they say. And it’s one of the reasons people like Gov. Matt Mead have asked that the feds let the current plans play out.
Since Wyoming and other agencies started paying attention to sage grouse declines in the mid-’90s, and then began to implement policies about 10 years ago, the rapid slide in population has leveled off, said Christiansen.
An increase in population hasn’t been noted yet.
“We’re dealing with a hard environmental and a long-lived bird,” he said. “It takes time for those responses to show up in the environment.”
Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries have spent the last 12 months finding footing in the new normal for the coal, oil and gas sectors.
The price of crude and the production numbers at Powder River Basin coal mines both improved. The hemorrhaging of jobs during the previous years slowed and reversed course.
And the renewed hope has dampened fears fueled during the worst of the bust about the survival of the state’s rich resources, its funding model and its workers.
It’s a familiar refrain: Hunker down. Weather the storm. Ask God for one more boom.
The price of crude went up in 2017, though its current state of hovering below $60 would have been considered dismal before the bust. Oil and gas companies say they have made efficiencies throughout the downturn that make the new normal for crude pricing survivable.
Industry enthusiasm started early in the year, after the first quarter federal lease sale that netted $129 million, about half of which went to the state.
Oil and gas companies have long grumbled that the Bureau of Land Management should allow more leases for energy development, and in the first sale of 2017, the agency appeared to deliver.
Similar sales in the Powder River Basin revealed a continued interest in staking out land in Wyoming’s key basin, some said, a notion small companies argue heralds long term growth beginning in the Powder River Basin.
Oilmen like to say that each well they drill increases their knowledge of the formation beneath them.
Coal improvements have also ignited hope, though the industry acknowledges long-term challenges.
As the regulatory environment became more favorable to coal companies after the election of President Donald Trump, pressure increased from coal plant retirements that continued to reduce demand for Wyoming’s keystone industry.
POWDER RIVER BASIN — Standing ankle deep in a hill of powdery clay, chunks of rock and waste coal, Patrick “Rooster” Baumann, senior project manager for Cloud Peak Energy, can just make out equipment sitting on a ridge outside the boundaries of Antelope Mine near Wright.
Coal production beat last year’s numbers every quarter that had been reported, though is likely to stay below historic norms.
With that increased activity, some jobs returned of the nearly 1,000 lost between 2015 and 2016. But the comeback was marginal. About 330 jobs were reinstated as coal companies operated with new restraint post downturn.
Current employment is not expected to increase significantly, some say.
“It’s a pretty good snapshot of where we are going to be going forward,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, of the job picture. “The industry has tightened its belt, it’s downsized. They are doing a lot more with less; they’re becoming more efficient and watching their pennies.”
Wyoming coal companies have a new focus on discipline after the sector moves further away from the economic bust that swept away 1,000 jobs in the Powder River Basin.
But the new discipline in the Powder River Basin, particularly by companies that emerged from bankruptcy last year, has shown up in improved earnings, despite declines in demand.
It’s been a positive three months for Powder River Basin coal with the largest producer, Peabody Energy, posting $203 million in profits, nearly $500 million for the year so far.
The year also brought some new players.
The Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines, owned by Contura Energy — a spinoff firm formed during the Alpha Natural Resources bankruptcy — will go to an Appalachian company.
Does the sale of Contura coal mines herald a change in the northeast Wyoming? Depends on who you ask.
When coal was king and Wyoming was churning out 400 million tons a year, it would have been unheard of for two Powder River Basin mines to flip ownership with little to no cash changing hands. It’s the kind of deal that happens with distressed assets, underperforming or idled operations heavy with debt. Not crown jewels.
Meanwhile, Ramaco Carbon is still fighting to dig coal in Sheridan County, after an independent council’s decision to refuse its coal mining permit until it had cleared up some issues in its mine plan.
Another new firm, Wyoming New Power, is drumming up financing to bring a coal treatment facility to the old Two Elk property in Campbell County. Proponents of coal treatment say that it can heighten the value of Powder River Basin coal, increasing its chance to compete in the new realities of the coal market and find buyers overseas.
It was a year of change and a year of stabilization. Some predictions of continued improvement in the price of crude next year have many hopeful. The coal sector, too, is looking ahead, but with a more measured expectation of what the new normal means.