Jonathan Downing has big shoes to fill. As the recently installed head of the Wyoming Mining Association, he steps into a position that was held for 23 years by Marion Loomis.
His appointment comes at a challenging time for mining interests, most particularly coal. (The association represents groups ranging from coal and uranium to trona and rare-earth minerals.) It also comes during a period when coal’s future is up for debate.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce new limits for carbon emissions from existing coal plants in June, an announcement that follows proposed EPA curbs on carbon for new plants last year.
The new regulations are key if the United States is going to address climate change, the president’s supporters say. Industry advocates argue such measures represent an attempt on the part of the government to drive coal from the energy marketplace.
This is the mining landscape as Downing enters his new role. A graduate of East High School in Cheyenne who boasts ties to several prominent Wyoming politicians, including U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, Downing spent 10 years with the Wyoming Contractors Association before arriving in his new role.
He spoke recently about his job and the challenges facing the state’s coal industry at large.
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Casper Star-Tribune: Why the mining association? What attracted you to the job?
Downing: There are a number of challenges out there for the industry. You’ve got quite bit of regulation taking place on the federal, state and local levels. It is challenging when you are essentially trying to extract a resource for a benefit out there.
If you look at what’s out there as far as its impact on the state, we need that industry thriving, not only in Wyoming but at the national and global level.
CST: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing mining in Wyoming?
Downing: If you look at coal first. The coal ports are going to be a challenge. Getting the coal
out to those markets in Asia, that is going to be an issue, but that will help sustain mining in Wyoming.
When you see the switch-over from coal to other sources of energy, if that continues it will have an impact on Wyoming. We can have affordable energy for the country, or we won’t. There is a demand for coal worldwide. It is a matter of where it ends up.
Uranium is an option, but it is a challenge of where we end up as far as price per pound. Trona seems to be going strong, as is bentonite. Rare-earth is just getting going. If you think about what goes into our smartphones, it is cool stuff.
CST: How do you balance all those different interests?
Downing: In my prior life, I was with Wyoming Contractors Association. It was very diverse, like the Wyoming Mining Association.
I think part of it is if people come together as an association, they realize they can accomplish some great things. One of our great strengths is we are a small state with a small population. People realize oftentimes they need to work together, and they do.
If the coal folks are having a challenge with something, odds are the uranium and trona folks are having the same challenge.
CST: Do you worry about Wyoming becoming like West Virginia and seeing that industry and revenue for the state disappear?
Downing: I’m still optimistic. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. In the near term, we have some major challenges from the administration. The thing to keep in mind is the efficiencies we have here compared to the operations in the eastern states.
You’re able to have a lot larger amount of production. When you take into account a lower-sulfur, cleaner fuel, it is still a viable option, whether it is in America or the world.
Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow