Monday, June 05, 2017

Folks in Wyoming coal town 'beginning to feel the comeback they voted for;' from market or Trump?

A coal train runs near Gillette, Wyo. (Washington Post photo by Matt McClain)
In the Wyoming town that likes to call itself "the energy capital of the nation" and voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, people are "beginning to feel the comeback they voted for," Robert Samuels reports for The Washington Post. "Unemployment has dropped by more than a third since March 2016, from 8.9 percent to 5.1 percent. Coal companies are rehiring workers, if only on contract or for temporary jobs."

"Maybe it was President Trump," Samuels writes. "Much was surely because of the market, after a colder winter led to increases in coal use and production. But in times when corporate profits are mixed with politics, it was difficult for people here to see the difference. . . . They felt optimistic about the tangible effects of the Trump economy, which favors fossil fuels, and the theoretical ones, which favor how they see themselves. Once on the fringes, their jobs had become the centerpiece of Trump’s American mythology."

Samuels reports, "There was a time when residents here were thankful for big government. In the 1970s, as the federal government stiffened environmental regulations, energy companies looked westward in search of cleaner coal. They found it here in the Powder River Basin, a prairie 4,500 feet above sea level, where coal was just below the surface. It created less energy than the coal of Appalachia, but it also emitted less carbon dioxide and sulfur. There was oil and gas under the city, too, and a place whose best-known landmark was literally once a pile of rocks turned into an American boomtown. . . . The problem with being a one-industry town is that the economy lives and dies on how the market performs."

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King "said the city didn’t despair too much in those down times because the market was cyclical. If oil and gas production were down, that would generally mean companies were buying coal. If coal prices were too low, jobs in oil and gas provided some relief," Samuels reports. But last year President Obama " issued a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal exploration that was a direct hit to Gillette, where most mining was done on federal land. The environmental regulations that had helped propel the industry were now stifling it. Carter-King said Obama’s antipathy toward fossil fuels stripped the city of the ability to develop more environmentally friendly ways to burn coal, prevented leaders from researching different uses for the material and complicated efforts to export the city’s prized possession to China and other fast-growing markets."

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