Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Laid-off Wyoming coal miners, who helped boost local economies, are left with few job options

Former Peabody miner Sean Seems stands
behind a plastic screen at an Alaska gold
mine. Former colleagues have been calling
him about Alaska jobs, he says. (WyoFile)
Last month's announcement of the first major coal-mining layoffs in Wyoming's Powder River Basin—Peabody Energy and Arch Coal cut a combined 465 jobs—has left miners who have helped fuel Wyoming's economy for decades with few, if any, options, Dustin Bleizeffer reports for WyoFile. "For 40 years, Gillette, Campbell County and all of Wyoming have feasted on revenues from mining coal—spending billions of dollars on roads, pipelines, schools and other public facilities, and socking away billions in savings. The corpus of Wyoming’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund stands at more than $7 billion (bolstered mostly by coal, oil and natural gas). The Wyoming State Treasurer’s Office says it invests a total $19 billion."

But since last month’s layoffs, "many families here are asking, what’s left for the workers?" Bleizeffer writes. "Not much. Not directly. There are no state-initiated jobs programs for those who are laid off in the energy sector. Unlike Alaska, there is no mineral royalty payment to Wyoming citizens. Instead, the state spends millions on infrastructure, K-12 and secondary education, various economic development strategies and on promoting the coal, oil and gas industries themselves."
"Mine layoffs have rattled the foundations of Gillette, Wright, Douglas and other communities in northeast Wyoming, which were already suffering from major losses in oil and gas jobs," Bleizeffer writes. "While local leaders proclaim resilience, there’s also a lot of fear and anger. For coal miners in particular, the fear is of losing perhaps the best-paying job they’ve ever had. Wyoming coal miners, on average, gross $82,000, according to state figures. Miners also face the possibility of leaving towns where they have lived what some might consider a charmed blue-collar life — excellent schools, excellent (some say extravagant) public facilities and a real sense of community where neighbors, in one way or another, all rely on the energy industry." Most of the anger is directed at President Obama and his "war on coal."

"Wyoming lost more than 5,000 jobs last year, most of them in energy-producing regions," Bleizeffer writes. "The biggest job loss in Campbell County from third quarter 2014 to third quarter 2015 was in oil and gas, which shed 750 jobs compared to 115 direct mining jobs during the same period, according to state senior economist David Bullard. However, those losses in mining jobs—now at 580—may be of more concern. Oil and gas jobs are like icing on Campbell County’s cake—sometimes it’s thick and sometimes it is thin. Mining, however, has been an economic stabilizer that has helped service companies survive and even diversify in drilling downturns."

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