(SNL, April 4) – After two of the country’s largest coal producers announced hundreds of layoffs at Wyoming mines, the state’s political leadership responded with pledges of support and long-term services but few immediate solutions for the battered local industry.
Late last week, Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp. announced cuts in staff at some of the country’s largest mines, citing an array of market and regulatory challenges that have weighed down the state’s struggling coal industry. A representative for the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce, near where the mines are located, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that further staff reductions had occurred in the area in recent months.
As the largest state producer of coal in the country, Wyoming has struggled to fend off the industry downturn in recent years and sustain needed tax revenue from one of its largest sectors. In addition to coal, Wyoming also relies heavily on oil and gas production, which has also suffered under the pressure of low pricing.
Last week’s layoffs marked the latest in a stream of staff reductions that have plagued the state and served to force the industry’s troubles into political view.
Wyoming’s Republican Gov. Matt Mead responded to the layoffs and broader downturn hours after the reductions had been announced, calling a press conference to announce a “rapid response team” of state officials intended to help those communities impacted by the job losses.
“This is an immediate and very personal problem,” Mead said, recalling time spent living in the city of Gillette, a town located near the affected mines.
Mead introduced a team of state officials, including those from the Wyoming Business Council, Department of Insurance, Department of Workforce Services and local community colleges, meant to provide immediate and longer-term services to the newly unemployed.
Allowing that these services would provide little relief for the ailing coal industry or hope for its long-term survival, Mead stated that this was a vital reaction to something beyond the state’s immediate control, comparing the downturn to a natural disaster.
“When we have a natural disaster in the state, we put together the appropriate team to respond to it,” Mead said. “This isn’t a natural disaster, but it’s certainly a disaster in terms of the personal lives of those miners and what it’s going to mean for those communities and businesses.”
“Coal mining has meant so much to this state,” Mead later added. “When something like this happens, we want to do our best to alleviate the situation.”
Mead went on to outline the host of challenges facing the state’s coal industry, noting that warmer-than-expected winter temperatures had dashed any hope of a recovery in demand this year. Further, coal export projects intended to allow Powder River Basin coal to reach the Asian market had met with further delays and resistance from coastal states.
A few days after Mead’s press conference, the likelihood of new coal export projects continued to erode with news that the developers behind the Gateway Pacific project in Washington had paused ,its environmental review of the project.
According to a representative from SSA Marine, the developers behind the Gateway project, the pause will last until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases its final decision on a challenge from the Lummi Nation regarding tribal fishing rights. Should that be decided in the project’s favor, the environmental review will begin again.
Despite those obstacles, Mead repeated plans to “double down” on his efforts to ensure that Wyoming coal has a future, including a pledge to continue his fight against Obama administration environmental regulations and support access to export markets. In 2015, Mead signed new bond legislation that would provide a billion dollars for infrastructure outside of the state. While the state law allows financial backing for any infrastructure projects outside of Wyoming, coal export terminals including the Gateway Pacific project have received the most attention since the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority received authority over such projects in 2014.