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Wyoming's mining sector suffers largest job decline, losing 6,000 jobs
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Wyoming's mining sector suffers largest job decline, losing 6,000 jobs

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US Coal Climate Change

A BNSF Railway train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Montana, last summer. Wyoming's mining sector reported 6,000 less jobs in November, compared to the year before.

For workers in Wyoming’s mining industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal.

A new report published by Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division last week shows the mining sector lost more jobs than any other sector late last year. The sector recorded 6,000 fewer jobs in November — a staggering 29% decline from a year ago.

Mining jobs in Wyoming down by 6,000

The mining sector encompasses a wide variety of jobs that involve the extraction of oil, gas, coal, trona, uranium and even copper, according to Dylan Bainer, the state’s principal economist.

The collapse in energy markets worldwide incited by the pandemic led many mineral producers to dramatically scale back production, shut in wells and hope for better times.

“This is the 11th consecutive month the mining sector has experienced year-over-year declines in employment,” Bainer said.

Sales and use taxes also lost substantial ground in Wyoming in the close of last year.

Mining companies contributed $6.7 million less in taxes last month, compared to December 2019. That’s a 67% drop. Counties dependent on energy and other mineral jobs have buckled under the loss of the once dependable tax base.

The number of people seeking unemployment aid soared last week to 965,000, the most since late August and a sign that the resurgent virus has likely escalated layoffs. The latest figures for jobless claims, issued Thursday by the Labor Department, remain at levels never seen until the virus struck.

In December, sales and use tax collection was down 41% year to date in Campbell County, a loss of about $4 million for the county.

Coal production in November in Wyoming landed at 19.2 million tons, 3.3 million tons shy of 2019. Annual coal production in Wyoming last year fell by about 20%, according to initial data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

According to Rick Mansheim, manager of the Workforce Services in Gillette, the number of workers coming into the center seeking help has stabilized since the rush he saw in the beginning days of the pandemic. But when it comes to jobs in the mining sector, they’re becoming more few and far between, he said.

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“There are just not as many of the types of jobs as we’re used to seeing,” he said. “There are still a lot of jobs out there, but not the jobs associated with energy and mining.”

“I think the coal mines here, I don’t think we can expect any jump (in jobs) or anything,” he added. “I think there is going to be a gradual decline.”

There could be a slight reprieve for coal miners in the near term, but it could be temporary. Energy analysts predict higher natural gas prices could help boost coal production in 2021.

The average natural gas price at the Opal Hub in December came out to $3.24 per million British thermal units, about $0.34 higher than the average in December 2019. Utilities can provide electricity to customers using natural gas or coal, but generally gravitate toward the cheaper power source.

Oil and gas activity has also been slow to recover in Wyoming, though commodity prices have been somewhat revived since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The West Texas Intermediate monthly average price for crude oil increased in December to $47.03 per barrel, an increase of 14.9% from November,” Bainer said. For Wyoming Sour and Wyoming Sweet, the average price in December was $33.15 and $37.92, respectively.

According to Baker Hughes, the average oil rig count in December here was six, compared to 21 the year before. The rig count is a helpful indicator for how much new drilling activity is taking place.

But the mining sector hasn’t been alone in its struggle to stay afloat in recent months.

There were 14,400 fewer jobs in Wyoming in November, when compared to 2019, a decline of 5%. The state reported 274,600 total non-farm wage and salary jobs in November.

The report revealed the state collected $11 million less in sales and use taxes in November than in the year before. According to the report, only three sectors Wyoming’s economy (of the 12 used in the report) witnessed increases in tax collection, with each reporting less than a 7% uptick year over year.

Photos: A look at how one coal bankruptcy affected a southwest Wyoming community

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports last

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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