GILLETTE — Nearly two years to the day after massive coal layoffs in Gillette, Terry Camp sat in the dim light of a local bar drinking, a young Great Dane at his feet.
The welder whose contract firm works at a number of the region’s coal mines wasn’t the only man from the coal industry drinking at Lakeside Bar and Grill in Gillette that afternoon. Miners drifted in throughout the day and the small bar filled with coal-dusted workers a little after dawn and at day’s end: shift change.
A few days earlier, about 300 people showed up in Gillette for a Clean Power Plan meeting, arguing whether the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation on carbon dioxide emissions was more devastating to the coal industry than coal emissions were to the environment.
Twenty miles away, the administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt had recently toured the “impressive” Black Thunder mine, and stumped for the potency of the coal industry digging away in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Camp and the other people in the bar didn’t see Pruitt. They didn’t show up at the Clean Power Plan. They were working.
Since the downturn, nearly 1,000 miners have left the Wyoming coal industry. About 5,600 remain. Some were laid off and hired back with different working conditions: less pay, a weaker insurance plan, a temporary position. Others are working mandatory overtime or searching for a second job.
As politicians and industry groups cry that coal is not dead, environmentalists respond that it will be soon, and companies explain to shareholders and journalists how coal will weather the new normal of diminishing coal demand, the men and women who work in the mines simply worry. A tenuous stability has fallen on coal country since the downturn, but the reality of being part of the labor force in the Powder River Basin is anything but stable.
“A lot of jobs are coming back, but it’s nothing near what it was,” said Camp. “I think that’s everybody’s fear in the area: that this is the beginning of the end for it, you know?”
Rose Frieling lost her job as a janitor at Buckskin Mine in a sweep of layoffs in the spring two years ago. Her husband, Mitchell, kept his, but their financial situation crumbled fast.
“You lose an income, it’s like do you pay the mortgage or do you eat,” she said, staring over Mitchell’s shoulder at the back of Lakeside bar. “It can be that devastating.”
She was hired back when the coal market began to stabilize, and kept her pay level. She had lost some of her benefits.
A number of mine employees find themselves in a similar position. Things aren’t the same as before.
They lost their seniority or have been hired on part time or as temporary workers, she said.
“You’ll work as a temp forever because they don’t have to pay you benefits,” she said. “It almost doesn’t pay to work at a coal mine (anymore) other than the wage.”
The coal jobs have just changed from a job you could rely on to a job that could disappear any minute. It’s been two years since the downturn’s worst hit coal country, but for the people who live there the wound is tender. Any sign of difficulty in the industry makes people think about what they went through before, and companies’ decisions are watched closely.
“We’re slowing down right now,” Frieling said. “They just moved people around to make two big crews and two small crews. Last time they did that we had a big layoff in May and that’s when I lost my job.”
There have been coal miners in Wyoming for more than century, and until recently, the numbers just kept climbing. In 2011, the industry hit 7,000 employees, the highest count since 1924, according to state records. Production had been rising practically every year, from 7,000,000 tons in the early 1970s to a peak in 2008 of 466,000,000.
But coal demand has fallen dramatically across the U.S. as natural gas power plants and renewable energy farms take coal’s place in the power sector. Fifteen years ago, coal mines like Wyoming’s Black Thunder were fueling about half of the electricity use in the country. That figure fell to around 40 percent until the most recent downturn which cut it down to about 30 percent.
Projections differ on coal’s future. Most experts are looking at a steady decline. In the best-case scenario, coal demand dips down for the next few years then holds steady. But that forecast is based on everything that impacts coal use staying about the same. No surprises.
When the count of miners in Wyoming goes out each year, it’s not always clear that a host of contractor workers are also tied into the industry.
“In coal we see that more than any other commodity,” said Terry Adcock, Wyoming State Mine Inspector. “I would venture to say 30 percent of the folks working there today are contract employees.”
Contract workers are employed by the many businesses that serve the coal industry, from welders to reclamation experts. Some offer the benefits and high pay of a traditional mine job, some are smaller operations with less to offer.
When things get tough, those jobs are often the first to go, he said.
During the downturn 811 contractor jobs disappeared from the ranks in the mining industries. Now that the industry has stabilized, those jobs appear to have returned faster than the traditional mine jobs as firms are keeping expenses tight.
While only five jobs were added by coal firms since 2016, more than 100 contract employees are back in the mining business.
Camp, the welder in Gillette, lost his mining job during the downturn and picked up odd jobs in the meantime. He almost lost his house before he got the contract job he has now, he said.
Looking back, he did everything right. He graduated high school and went to technical school. He served in the military. Work in the oil fields gave way to work in the coal mines because they offered more stability than the oil and gas cycle.
Now a lot of miners in Campbell County wonder what their plan B will be.
When Camp’s friend was laid off in 2016, he went to the gold mines in Nevada. Skilled labor like welding is needed somewhere in the country, he said.
“People say [coal’s] on its way out,” Camp said. “No way, no way. America is far too industrialized.”
Soon after the layoff season in Gillette, Wyoming voted en masse for President Donald Trump. For coal miners that reasoning was clear: He’d promised to bring back coal jobs.
And though everyone in coal country knew there was a market war coal was losing, witnessing 500 miners at Black Thunder and North Antelope Rochelle disappear on March 31, 2016 left people in a daze.
For a while everyone was just praying for stability, and that’s what coal country got, said Louise Carter-King, Gillette’s mayor.
Nobody in Gillette really liked being picked on for producing a fuel that so many use, even if it is a dirtier fuel than gas or wind. Washington’s support for the industry keeps spirits up in places like Campbell County, the mayor said.
Carter-King is optimistic about how much better the coal industry is doing today than two years ago. Wyoming coal can be sold to other countries if the ports open on the West Coast, she said. Moreover, Wyoming is working on dealing with the carbon dioxide issue, researching carbon capture technology. That may be a solution years out, but it’s a way forward, she said.
On the ground, things have changed, she said. The mayor’s husband is a shovel operator at Caballo mine, owned by one the largest coal companies in the United States, Peabody Energy. Those miners are working forced overtime right now, she said. Rehires are often temporary, so they are missing the benefits packages, she said echoing the janitor at Lakeside.
But in a few years, her husband will retire. They’ll probably have to fill that job, she said.
Back at Lakeside, the miners dabble in macroeconomics, trying to makes sense of a market that keeps changing and political tides that will define their jobs.
“This would be a cash cow — the Powder River Basin,” said Matt Beitler, a miner at Coal Creek mine, thinking of exporting coal to Asia. Gas prices may be low right now, but they could be high in the future making electricity costs jump, he added.
They’re confident in coal. They know better than anyone just how much coal comes out of the ground each year to turn lights on in Missouri or Texas. What they say they don’t know is whether they will still be coal miners in a few years.
“I told my wife we’re going to have a hard decision to make in a couple years, midterm of Trump’s presidency,” Camp said. “Maybe we need to sell and look at moving on.”
When the recent population figures for Wyoming were released earlier this spring, they showed a dramatic drop — more than 8,000 people had left the state in total during the energy bust that began two years ago. That was the largest fall since 1989 and translated to a roughly 1 percent decline in the number of Cowboy State residents.
But the population loss was not uniform. Eight counties actually saw a slight increase in residents, while a handful of others — Campbell, Weston, Niobrara — lost more than 3 percent of residents.
The divide wasn’t quite rural versus urban. Natrona County bled 1.7 percent while Cheyenne and Laramie, in the southeast corner of the state, saw modest growth of 0.4 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. Likewise, Sublette County fell 2 percent while neighboring Lincoln County grew 1 percent.
Much of the differences within Wyoming can be explained by jobs. Regions heavily dependent on the energy industries were hit hardest and more stable areas like Laramie County — with many government jobs and other assets — were insulated. The northwest corner of the state, reliant on tourism during a period of strong economic growth nationwide, escaped the toll taken on places like Gillette.
On a broader level, though — that in which all of Wyoming is just “one small town with really long streets” — economists say the state’s rural nature has hurt its ability to retain residents and build a skilled workforce.
Economic growth in Wyoming’s neighboring states of Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana has made it difficult for Wyoming to hold onto — or recruit — residents when the local economy is struggling. Colorado, Utah and Idaho both have unemployment rates about 1 percentage point below the already-low national average. They also have economies built around metropolitan centers like Denver, Salt Lake City and Boise, as well as booming smaller cities like Fort Collins and Bozeman.
Mark Haggerty, a researcher at Montana-based Headwaters Economics, said in an interview earlier this year that the population shift away from rural regions of the country, including Wyoming, and toward metropolitan areas has been driven by growth in “innovation jobs,” like software development, that rely on a critical mass of similar companies.
“Cities are the places that are growing,” Haggerty said.
That’s partially because even if a city like Casper or Cheyenne is able to attract a handful of well-paying jobs in industries that rely on high levels of education and advanced technology, it’s hard to generate long-term growth without bringing many similar companies to town.
“Despite the internet and information technology promising that geography is dead, exactly the opposite has happened,” Haggerty said. “New economic sectors demand closer proximity and people need to be able to get out and see their clients.”
This is an issue that has drawn the attention of Gov. Matt Mead’s economic diversification initiative, Endow, and the failure to keep residents in the state has come up during presentations to the Legislature.
“We’re faced with a number of troubling population trends,” Jerimiah Rieman, Mead’s representative to Endow, told lawmakers last summer.
The challenges of Wyoming’s rural nature were highlighted during that meeting. Rieman helped present a socioeconomic report that showed only two cities in Wyoming — Casper and Cheyenne — had at least 90,000 residents within a 60-mile radius. That metric is important, the report stated, because workers are generally willing to commute roughly 60 miles to work and new businesses can expect to draw roughly 1 employee for every 300 people in a population. If Wyoming hopes to attract a critical mass of new businesses, it will be hard to attract them to regions without a ready workforce, including much of the state outside Natrona County and the southeast corner.
While the report found much room for growth in the arena of so-called “innovation jobs,” it also painted a rough picture of the challenges ahead for Wyoming in attracting such work.
“(L)ack of amenities to attract millennial talent, lack of skilled workforce,” and lack of reliable internet were all listed as obstacles to bringing a slice of the booming tech and “knowledge” industry to Wyoming.
But the idea of extending the Front Range to Cheyenne or Casper, or of converting Lander into the next Bozeman, doesn’t sit right with some in Wyoming. Fears of losing the state’s culture often follow close on the heels of any discussions about urbanization or seeking to draw more workers to the region.
“It just seems like you gotta be a Wyoming guy to live in Wyoming,” said Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland.
But many advocates of diversification don’t see how the state can attract more high-paying and stable jobs without risking some loss of historic character. State Treasurer Mark Gordon, who is running for governor, said he thinks a balance is possible — and that there have been many positive evolutions for Wyoming over the years.
“People go, ‘Look I think this state is fine just the way it is — I don’t want the population to grow.’ But they also don’t remember what it was like ... when we had gravel on our football fields, when we didn’t have snow plows,” Gordon said. “People like living in a place where they can get a good meal and a cup of coffee.”
Gordon also believes that even if the state does everything right to diversify the economy and attract new jobs, Greear’s point will remain true. It’ll be guys and gals with a disposition toward Wyoming’s way of life that will settle here.
“Wyoming has its own wonderful buffering system,” Gordon said. “You’re going to end up attracting people who are more independent.”