As jobs in the coal industry dwindle, the central question persists: Where will its workers go?
Recent developments like the nuclear reactor headed for one of Wyoming’s closing coal-fired power plants and the anticipated research into coal-based products at the Wyoming Innovation Center offer glimpses into the systemic shift experts say needs to happen in communities reliant on coal. But an economy-wide transition for the nation’s estimated 90,000 coal workers is possible — and affordable — according to a report published last month by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Utility Workers Union of America.
The report estimates the cost of supporting a nationwide move to alternative forms of employment for workers presently employed by the coal industry at between $83 billion over 15 years and $33 billion over 25 years. Those sums, though high, are dwarfed by the trillions of dollars that will likely be funneled toward renewable energy development in the coming decades.
“The energy sector in this country and around the world is changing rapidly, and has been for some time now,” said Lee Anderson, director of governmental affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America and a co-author of the report.
“Inevitably, when you have massive changes in a particular sector, you get a lot of job loss that happens,” he said. “That’s been true for a number of industries, and by and large, at least in this country, that’s almost always been very poorly managed, and led to very bad economic, social and political outcomes. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Included in the report’s estimates are a five-year wage and benefit replacement program, educational funding for workers and their families, other vocational training, and mental health services. Those programs would let former coal workers transition to viable new careers without having to find ways to support themselves and their families while between jobs, the report found.
“It’s well and good to tell a person to go get an education, some kind of training,” Anderson said. “But they have to live to live in the meantime. So they’re going to go through a six-month program or a three year program, or whatever — how are they going to keep food on the table?”
Coal-sector jobs have sustained Wyoming’s families for generations. And for workers who have made their careers in the coal industry, alternatives — especially well-paying alternatives — can be hard to find, said Chauffe Schirmer, a former administrative assistant at the Jim Bridger power plant in Point of Rocks.
Schirmer, who spent six years in the coal industry and is now a national representative for the Utility Workers Union of America, is a second-generation utility worker. Her parents both retired from the Jim Bridger power plant. Her brother is still a control operator there.
“Once you get hired at one of these top employers, the sense is that you remain loyal to that company, and you’re set,” Schirmer said. “And so to have that kind of long-term vision pulled out from under you, it’s really hard to figure out what your next move is.”
Many displaced coal workers end up taking new jobs with longer hours and lower pay, sacrificing time with their families and losing the financial stability their old jobs provided, Schirmer said.
“It’s easy to think, OK, you just work harder, or you work more hours, in order to support your family — you do what you have to do, and nobody’s saying they wouldn’t do that for their family,” she said. “But in order to have similar income and support your family like you have been, if you have to work more hours and or multiple jobs, then you’re not looking at the same kind of life you’ve had.”
Displaced workers can already access some transitional support, including help choosing a new career path and funding for the subsequent training, at workforce centers run by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. Those programs can provide a lifeline for laid-off workers struggling to find new employment.
The state unemployment rate has declined since the worst of the pandemic, but it’s still concerningly high, said Ty Stockton, communications manager for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. Plenty of retraining funding is available for displaced workers across all employment sectors. Stockton believes there is low engagement with such programs because many unemployed workers don’t know they exist.
“It’s always a shock to lose your job. I’ve been there, and it’s no fun,” Stockton said. “So then having to settle for something that’s not as good is a further shot to the ego. But if we can help folks do what they’ve always wanted to do, or find a job that better supports themselves and their families, that’s even better.”
But the report’s authors say paid training isn’t enough. Without additional financial support, workers often choose the training program that lets them get back to work most quickly, said report co-author Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“That makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective — you need to take care of your family. But that might not be the best long term solution, or the most high-paying job that you could get,” he said.
For many coal workers, the threat of an impending career change looms. The Blackjewel bankruptcy sent shockwaves through the community when its mines shut down without warning in 2019. And a report published last month by the Sightline Institute found that numerous mines in the Powder River Basin could be at risk of future financial collapse.
Demand is waning for coal from the Powder River Basin mines, where production has fallen to just half of its peak a decade ago, the report found. In 2020, every power plant that bought coal from the Powder River Basin saw their customers use significantly less electricity than in previous years. That grim combination of factors is indicative of major money troubles for the region’s mines.
“Looking at which power plants that buy coal from the PRB have decreased their coal burn most over the last three years, this is a leading indicator for the power plant being non-competitive from an economic perspective,” said Dan Cohn, the researcher who authored the Sightline report.
The two main types of coal mined in the Powder River Basin are generally classified as either 8,400 or 8,800 British Thermal Units per pound, depending on their energy density. Wyoming’s 8,400 Btu per pound mines — which include Buckskin, Belle Ayr, Eagle Butte and the already closing Coal Creek mine, among others — have seen the sharpest drop in demand, according to the Sightline report.
While the report indicates that those mines are probably most in jeopardy, its findings don’t account for all financial factors. The highest-risk mines won’t necessarily be the first to close.
And there are other ways to keep the coal industry profitable, including advancements in carbon capture technology and alternative uses of coal, said Travis Deti, executive director of the Mining Association of Wyoming.
“The state of Wyoming has not thrown in the towel just yet,” Deti said. “The resource is just too vast and too valuable to keep in the ground.”