Casper Star Tribune, June 21) – These are scary times here in Wyoming. Peabody recently closed its Gillette office and laid off 20 local employees. The St. Louis-based mining company is implementing cost-cutting measures that it hopes will save up to $45 million annually.
On the same day, Rocky Mountain Power announced it is envisioning a far less coal-dependent future. The utility, which is based in Salt Lake City, said it plans to rely more on wind, natural gas and energy efficiency.
Complicating coal’s story further are at least three factor: low natural gas prices, a glut of the mineral and federal air-quality regulations. Coal consumption is expected to tumble 7 percent this year. Rumors are swirling about the futures of Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal, two debt-ridden Powder River Basin mining companies.
This all makes for a particularly difficult situation for us in the Cowboy State. Mines here account for 40 percent of U.S. production, and we depend on coal. For many of us, the mineral pays the bills. It also helps fund our schools and state coffers. Some districts and municipalities are already raising red flags.
In the face of this news, it’s tempting to look the other way, to avoid facing the facts. It’s equally tempting to panic, to overreact.
But no matter how hard it is, we must not let ourselves do either of those things. Neither is productive; neither is constructive. And neither takes into account all the positives we do have.
For one thing, the Powder River Basin’s low production costs mean the region’s coal should be able to compete with natural gas well into the future. The names on the mines might change, and that would not come without difficulty, but the good news is that the basin is lucrative enough to remain a significant part of the nation’s power generation future.
We also have the benefit of experience. We know that in the past, when times get tight, the state has pulled back on funding for research, for example. It’s easy to withdraw and hold tight to the things we do have rather than exploring how to make things better. But we know now that that’s absolutely the wrong approach. Now more than ever is the time to put resources into planning for our economic future.
In that light, a push to diversify our economy is certainly in order. We applaud the efforts of the Wyoming Business Council and other groups to add industries to the mix we already have, to cushion us against the boom and bust cycle of the energy industry. That should continue.
But we must also not give up on coal. We want coal to drive our economy for as long as possible, and to some extent we do have control over that. As a state, we must continue exploring ways to get our exports to the places where they’re wanted most; it appears that Asian markets are a promising destination. Let’s continue that push. We must also research how to extract these minerals even more efficiently.
Beyond that, we have what might be the most promising feature of all: human potential. If we commit to equipping our students with the science and technical knowledge they need to help our state lead on coal well into the future, the future looks much brighter – for coal and for all of us here in Wyoming.