More bad news for Wyoming coal: The Coal Creek coal mine in the Powder River Basin just announced it is shuttering. The blow follows closely on the heels of the Decker mine halting operations.
Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s response to the news was, “We’re going to continue to fight for every Wyoming job,” which read like a statement penned by a staffer. Which may explain why, rather than explaining how he intends to “fight for every Wyoming job” Barrasso deflected responsibility by blaming the decades-in-the-making decline of our coal industry on the three-week-old Biden administration.
By the way, our pain is far from over. Arch Resources, Inc. has indicated that the enormous Black Thunder mine is next on the list. With the compassion of The Grinch on Christmas Eve, Arch’s CEO and president Paul Lang said in a statement, “Our objective is to continue to harvest value and cash from our legacy thermal assets.” It doesn’t seem like these out-of-state CEOs consider towns such as Kemmerer and Gillette as communities with schools, churches, restaurants and playgrounds. Instead they represent the geological position of “legacy thermal assets” there for the “harvest.”
Last year, when other Wyoming mines went into bankruptcy, both Barrasso and now-retired Sen. Mike Enzi opposed legislation that would protect impacted mine workers. Enzi said the price tag was too high, and Barrasso promised he was “committed to finding a solution that will lessen the burden on the miners,” which never happened. It’s one thing to do nothing, and quite another to stand in the way of help.
Wyoming does not need any more soundbites blaming Obama or Biden for America’s shift away from coal, nor does it need empty and unfulfilled promises. What we need is to cut some deals of our own.
We know from the Blackjewel bankruptcy, and the current settlement being considered by the judge, that workers will be lucky to get a fraction of what they are owed. The owner of the Decker coal mine, Lighthouse Resources — which filed for bankruptcy in December — appears to be following the model of the Westmoreland Coal Company, which after closing the Kemmerer mine arranged to toss out retiree obligations and the union contract.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is pushing a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. The bill is certain to pass given the Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Nonetheless, President Joe Biden would surely relish a shot at some Republican support. Since the bill is going to pass anyway, instead of wasting this opportunity shouldn’t our two senators cut a deal?
Through subsidies, the tax code and environmental regulations, the federal government picks winners and losers in the energy sector. Which is why it is completely appropriate to require assistance to those neighborhoods adversely impacted by government decisions.
In return for two Republican votes, Wyoming should require that the stimulus bill provides federal relief for workers who are affected by mine closures. This could include full protection for any retirement or pension obligations, healthcare coverage for the lesser of two years or when a worker becomes re-employed and extended unemployment coverage similar to what is being offered to those impacted by COVID-19.
This should cover not just our coal miners, but the rail workers and other trades and businesses that depend upon an open mine. The bill’s language should also strip mining companies of the ability to use bankruptcy laws to duck out of existing union contracts and other employee obligations. Not much to ask inside of a $1.9 trillion dollar bill.
Wyoming’s members of Congress should further ask for public assurances from the Democratic leadership to fast-track a bill that will provide comprehensive transition support to communities affected by declining coal volumes.
This is what it means to represent your state over your political party.
Over the last few decades, Congress members have increasingly shifted from representing their communities to representing just their political party and the donors that fund their campaigns. Wyoming desperately needs a delegation that will cut some deals and place our needs above all else, including prioritizing Wyoming interests ahead of those of Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment.