Troubled times continue to grow in the Powder River Basin. This summer two large coal companies declared bankruptcy, impacting four major coal mines in Wyoming. While Cloud Peak and Blackjewel’s respective bankruptcies played out very differently, both point to the fact that Wyoming’s coal industry is facing increasing challenges.
The U.S. coal industry, including here in Wyoming, has been in trouble for years. We felt this pain three years ago when Arch, Alpha and Peabody all filed for bankruptcy, and we’re feeling it again this year. The coal market has been declining since 2008, and we must start thinking about what’s next for our state.
To help our coal-dependent communities get to “what’s next,” we could use some help. We need something to bridge the gap between a fully employed and operational Wyoming coal industry of the past and a future where mines are closing and jobs are disappearing. Whether that happens in six months or 20 years, we really don’t know. But one thing we do know is, we can’t continue to pin our hopes on a robust coal economy — those days are over.
We may think we have years to figure out this whole new-economy plan, but putting off meaningful discussions doesn’t prevent the inevitable. It just makes us less prepared. It’s like when we look at things in our rearview mirrors: Objects may be closer than they appear. We may not have as much time as we think.
Our coal communities need solutions now, which is why HR 2156, the bi-partisan federal RECLAIM Act, is so important. The bill — which was introduced in April 2019 — simply expedites spending $1 billion in already-collected Abandoned Mine Land funds to assist communities like ours that are struggling in the face of the coal industry’s decline. This money is earmarked to help transition our communities to sustainable new economies by spurring economic activity.
Wyoming is a top recipient of AML funds, and we have used those funds well since 1977. We have reclaimed over 25,000 acres of land and restored these mined-out areas for other uses, such as agriculture, recreation and wildlife habitat. AML funds have also helped restore miles of impaired streams and address many other impacts.
Just last year, more than 550 people were employed by AML contracts all around the state. These are good jobs that provide economic growth. More AML funds could put the employees laid off in the bankruptcies to work. And in the meantime, our state leaders can work on finding ways to permanently diversify our economy and our state revenue stream.
The RECLAIM Act is not a permanent fix for Wyoming’s coal woes, but it is an opportunity for Wyoming and other coal states to help create jobs and fund some economic development.
Whether we like it or not, the U.S. coal industry is standing at the edge of a cliff, but it doesn’t have to take us all over the edge. We need a bridge.
Wyoming’s D.C. delegation should support and push for the passage of the RECLAIM Act for the benefit of Wyoming and other coal communities.