J. Mijin Cha, Assistant Professor, Urban and Environmental Policy, Occidental College.
To stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis, an energy transition away from fossil fuel extraction and use is necessary. While an energy transition is beneficial for society, as a whole, fossil fuel regions face an uncertain, economically insecure future, particularly given the history of unjust past transitions. This uncertainty, coupled with a long history with fossil fuel companies, creates hostility and contestation toward the energy transition. Yet, an energy transition is underway—largely driven, at this point, by market forces shifting away from coal, and oil and gas to a lesser extent, rather than climate policy.
In the summer of 2019, two large coal mines suddenly shut down in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (PRB) leaving workers unexpectedly unemployed and the surrounding community with a sudden loss of tax revenue (Graham, 2019). While several mining companies had gone through organized bankruptcy before, these mine closures were the first to do so without notice nor a managed bankruptcy plan. As coal production has been steadily declining since 2008, I traveled to the Powder River Basin to see if the recent mine closure had any effect on people’s support for the coal industry and whether there would be more openness to “just transition,” i.e. a managed decline away from fossil fuel production and use. Despite the weakened industry, I found that loyalty and belief in the coal industry run deep and while there are some efforts towards diversifying away from coal, there is no intention or planning for a coal-free future.
The Role of Coal in Wyoming
While many people think of the Appalachian region when talking about coal production in the U.S., Wyoming is one of the most important coal regions in the U.S. with its mines holding over one-third of all recoverable coal in the country (EIA n.d.). The state has over 1.4 trillion tons in total coal resources (Wyoming Mining Association 2018). Within the state, coal mining operations are largely concentrated in the Powder River Basin (PRB), which is home to seven of the ten largest coal mines in the U.S. (Wyoming Mining Association 2018; “EIA – State Electricity Profiles” n.d.). The PRB mines have thick coal seams, some up to 100 feet, which lie just below the ground surface. The shallow nature of the coal beds allows for large-scale mechanized mining that is less environmentally destructive than other forms of surface mining because less topsoil and dirt must be removed before reaching the coal bed (Wyoming Mining Association 2018).
While coal’s contribution has been declining, Wyoming is still heavily reliant on revenue from coal mining. In 2017, coal contributed over $891 million in taxes, royalties, and fees to the state’s economy, over 40 percent of the state’s $2.1 billion in estimated revenue for the same year (Wyoming Mining Association 2018). The economic dominance of coal mining in Wyoming does not mean that mining is a significant employer, relative to other mining regions, largely due to automation. As a comparison, one miner in the PRB mines, on average, 61,753 tons of coal per year while one miner in Central Appalachia mines 4,765 tons, on average, less than 10 percent of a PRB miner.
While the number of workers employed is relatively low, coal miners are well compensated. The average annual wage of miners in Wyoming in 2016 was $85,520, compared to an overall state average $43,813. Miners in Wyoming also earn more, on average, than most other mining regions, particularly when the miner’s wage is compared to the average wage, as shown in the following table.
These conditions lead the PRB and Wyoming, in general, to be incredibly dependent upon the coal industry. Moreover, the rural nature of the state and region mean that attracting new industries is challenging. The PRB is not well connected to other main transit hubs and because the region developed around natural resource extraction—the area produces natural gas, as well as coal- other industries are not as economically significant as resource extraction. Yet, as noted earlier, the coal industry is in decline, leaving the state facing a very uncertain future.
Mine closures impact on attitudes toward a just energy transition
Interviews with several stakeholders from different private, public, and advocacy sectors in the wake of the Blackjewel mine closures found that there was a general consensus that the coal industry is in decline, but no consensus around the permanency of the decline and the causes of the decline. Opposition to a transition away from coal remained high and support for just transition policies was low. In alignment with other regions, there are several political and technical challenges to transition, including the continued centering of future economic efforts in fossil fuel development and use and the challenge of transitioning the fossil fuel workforce that may deepen opposition to transition.
Planning for the future of the PRB is firmly rooted in continuing coal mining, as long as possible. When asked about the future of the PRB, regardless of the Blackjewel bankruptcy, the overwhelming theme emerging was a desire to continue life as a coal mining region. While some interviewees expressed a desire to diversify the economy and move away from coal mining, future economic planning remains centered on coal mining without any meaningful diversification away from fossil fuel extraction and use. To prolong the life of the coal industry, the state is actively pursuing several avenues, including increasing export markets and investing heavily in technologies that use coal for a purpose other than electricity generation, such as large-scale water filtration systems.
Can there be a ‘just transition’ in contested regions?
In addition to the market realities, political and policy trends indicate the likelihood of stronger, not weaker, restrictions on carbon emissions (Di Pietro 2019). As part of the inevitable energy transition, there must be an active decrease in fossil fuel production and not just an increase in renewable energy development (York and Bell 2019). Though the PRB is just one region, addressing coal production in the region will need to be part of any meaningful emissions mitigation plan given the state’s contributions to both overall coal production and carbon dioxide emissions. Wyoming is the least populated state, yet its high level of carbon emissions from energy production and use makes it the second highest emitter per capita (EIA 2017).
The opposition to ending coal mining in the PRB is not unexpected. Even the Blackjewel closures did not meaningfully change opposition to an energy transition nor meaningfully increase support for just transition, indicating that the cultural and economic ties to coal mining run very deep and are unlikely to change on their own accord. Without attempts to attract new industry, the deep reliance on coal will continue. A managed transition plan could provide a pathway for economic diversification but would require substantial government intervention, which is also contested.
The entrenched opposition to both an energy transition and any government policy leads to the conclusion that just transition may always be contested and opposed. However, market conditions and increasing concern about climate change dictate that coal mining will continue to decline. Without just transition policies, the region surrounding the PRB and Wyoming, in general, will face significant economic challenges. An energy transition is occurring and the scale of the challenge indicates that the public sector is best positioned to mitigate, as much as possible, the negative economic consequences to prevent total economic collapse in the region due to the intensive planning and funding these policies require. This truth adds an additional layer of complication due to the anti-government, conservative nature of the state. However, the only way to advance these policies is through government policy. Fossil fuel industries are fundamentally ill suited to, and indeed have not, support workers and communities through an energy transition.
As coal mining further declines, government could manage the decline through implementing policies to seed new industries to diversify the economy, provide a safety net for workers, and provide tax revenue replacement locally and statewide. A just transition may not be welcomed in the PRB, but it is needed.
This article was adapted from “A just transition for whom? Politics, contestation, and social identity in the disruption of coal in the Powder River Basin”, Energy Research and Social Science, Volume 69, November 2020, 101657.
Di Pietro, Isabella. 2019. “Climate Change Emergency | Harvard Political Review.” September 2, 2019. https://harvardpolitics.com/world/climate-change-emergency/.
EIA. 2017. “Wyoming – Rankings – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” 2017. https://www.eia.gov/state/rankings/?sid=WY#series/12.
———. n.d. “Wyoming – State Energy Profile Analysis – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” Accessed October 14, 2019. https://www.eia.gov/state/analysis.php?sid=WY.
“EIA – State Electricity Profiles.” n.d. Accessed October 16, 2019. https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/Wyoming/.
Graham, Andrew. 2019. “Wyo Politicians Respond to Blackjewel and Coal’s Black Times.” WyoFile. August 6, 2019. https://www.wyofile.com/wyo-politicians-respond-to-blackjewel-and-coals-black-times/.
Wyoming Mining Association. 2018. “Wyoming Coal Overview.” http://www.wyomingmining.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2018-WCIC-Wyoming-Coal-Overview_Final.pdf.
York, Richard, and Shannon Elizabeth Bell. 2019. “Energy Transitions or Additions?: Why a Transition from Fossil Fuels Requires More than the Growth of Renewable Energy.” Energy Research & Social Science 51 (May): 40–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2019.01.008.
Header image: USGS (United States Geological Survey). ‘Coal mine in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana’. See here: Coal mine in the Powder River Basin (usgs.gov)