We’ve seen warning signs for years.
There were the subtle ones: earnings reports that fell below expectations or production figures that plateaued and then fell. And then there were the signs that no one could miss: a wave of bankruptcies and layoffs, including one day in March 2016 when the nation’s two largest coal mines shed a combined 465 workers.
We’ve felt the impacts, too. Declining state revenues that forced lawmakers to make tough decisions. A drop in school funding that led districts to cut services, and sometimes, close schools.
And yet, through it all, many of our state lawmakers refused to acknowledge there might be a problem. Rather than face the reality of structural declines in the coal industry, declines that haven’t changed two years into the most pro coal presidential administration in recent memory, our legislative leaders have avoided the stark economic realities of what dramatically declining coal revenues mean for the state.
The reality is we can’t continue to count on the coal industry to carry our economy or fund our government.
And now there has been a sign no one should ignore. A very public bankruptcy that’s teetered on the edge of liquidation. The nation’s fourth and sixth largest coal producing mines – Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr – closed. Hundreds of people out of work and even more hurting.
The Blackjewel bankruptcy is no longer a warning sign. It’s an explosion – one that’s sent painful shockwaves across Wyoming. It is an alarm we ignore at our peril.
Since the 2015 bust, lawmakers have repeatedly acknowledged the need to diversify our economy. Some have acknowledged a bitter truth: that until we reform our tax structure, unless it’s an energy extraction company, attracting new businesses to Wyoming costs the state money and only adds to our nagging revenue problems.
But when the time came for a clear-eyed evaluation of our situation, too many of our politicians stuck to their no-new-taxes pledges. Instead of even considering the difficult truths, instead of pushing for measures that might not be popular but that may be necessary, they kicked the can down the road. They treated all revenue measures the same, perhaps honoring pledges rather than making independent, well-reasoned decisions.
And now the future is here. Coal is in decline, three Wyoming producers are in bankruptcy and two mines are closed. The regulatory relief from President Donald Trump hasn’t resulted in a change in coal’s fortunes.
So what now?
Our leaders – lawmakers and our other elected officials – need to face reality. Blaming past administrations or casting doubt on the truth won’t solve our problems. We need leadership.
And it takes a true leader to say something that might not be popular: Cost cutting is not the whole answer and we will not likely cut our way out of this predicament. We need to attract new businesses, but we also need to change our tax code so that those businesses pay their fair share. Coal will play some role in the future, and there is a place for new carbon technologies. But we can’t pretend that coal will support our state like it once did.
Pursuing that path is more politically dangerous. We like low taxes. We like our traditional industries. But if we don’t make changes, we need only look to another rural, energy-rich state to see the consequences. Alaska long relied on its vast oil reserves to fuel its economy. But the fossil fuel industry there has diminished, and the state is experiencing painful economic realities. The governor recently announced plans for massive cuts to the state’s university system that will likely drive away young people and hurt Alaska for generations.
Wyoming doesn’t need to suffer the same fate. There is time – but that time has to be now. Lawmakers have wasted energy in the past on bills with little or no real impact on our state. Some have wrapped themselves up in polarizing issues not anchored in Wyoming. They’ve avoided being honest and straightforward with their constituents about Wyoming’s economic realities, choosing instead to tell voters we have other problems
This has to end. Today. Wyoming needs a new economic system, one where coal is part of a constellation of revenue sources, rather than the primary breadwinner. This won’t be painless, of course. No one “wants” new taxes. But we need a clear-eyed evaluation and action to set our state – and future generations – on a sustainable and healthy course.
And so we say to our leaders: Do the right thing. It’s time.