For decades, coal mining has formed the bedrock of Wyoming’s economy. Thermal coal has provided thousands of stable, well-paying jobs, brought prosperity to rural communities and supported the state with millions in severance tax revenues each year. Many don’t realize that Wyoming’s surface coal mining industry really began to flourish due to the passage of federal regulations that created a market for Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal. Just like in the past, economic headwinds can mean new opportunities for our state in unexpected ways.
While Wyoming’s thermal coal industry has thrived for decades, it is now in a slow but steady decline due to other state and federal policies. However, expanding industries that the state is currently pursuing like hydrogen, wind, solar and nuclear energy, carbon capture, manufacturing, carbon products, data centers and energy storage will all need to be located somewhere. The assets and facilities found on coal industry sites represent ideal locations for new economic development. Rather than disturbing untouched land and disrupting wildlife migration corridors or crucial habitat by developing new sites, why not repurpose these already disturbed areas?
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A new report funded by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) goes in-depth on the opportunity and challenges surrounding this innovative concept. The Coal Infrastructure Reuse Report provides an inventory of coal industry assets in Wyoming, provides details of past projects that have successfully repurposed infrastructure and examines how Wyoming might use policy or regulate changes to make new projects more successful.
Each of Wyoming’s 36 coal industry sites include millions of dollars of investment by companies in railroads, utilities, offices, warehouses, shops and more. Most of these assets can easily be reused, but current regulations incentivize returning the entire site to its original condition. To be clear, reclamation of industrial sites is usually a good thing. Retired mines should be reclaimed, and Wyoming’s coal companies do a wonderful job of returning their sites to natural landscapes, seeded with native plants that pronghorn, mule deer and elk love to eat. But each of these sites have facilities that represent a lost opportunity when they are bulldozed and scrapped. Wyoming can and should seize the opportunity before us by adjusting regulations and supporting a new life for our industrial assets. Doing so would attract project developers, reduce new construction costs and provide a future for these legacy sites, all while avoiding impacts to intact land.
State and county-level economic development organizations can play an important role. Big new investments don’t happen overnight, but neither do mine closures. Economic development organizations, if well-funded and empowered, can coordinate with mining companies and project developers in the growing industries that Wyoming is attempting to attract. They can sell the advantages of pre-built infrastructure, a workforce familiar with the site and Wyoming’s quality of life. This will bring new projects and prosperity to mine sites. While new economic investment is arriving, the state would be protecting the intact prairie and rangeland that Wyomingites have hunted, fished and worked for generations.
With this report from TNC in hand, the groundwork has been laid for the success of the infrastructure reuse concept. Wyoming needs local governments to support innovative projects with workforce training and re-zoning of facilities slated for closure. Wyoming also needs its state legislature and executive leadership to empower state agencies to make the repurposing of industrial sites a reality.
There is no better way to honor the legacy of the thermal coal industry in Wyoming than by repurposing its industrial infrastructure so that the communities coal built can continue to thrive. Doing so will bring benefits to the mining companies, the state, workers, our land and wildlife.
Full report at: nature.org/wycoalreusefull
Executive summary at: nature.org/wycoalreusesummary