On the first day of school in 2016, 1,000 fewer students showed up for classes in Gillette—a coal mining town in northeastern Wyoming—than had answered roll call the year before. Even in a fairly big city, such a drop-off would qualify as sizeable. Gillette is home to about 30,000 souls.
In this one-time boomtown, the housing market is now glutted with stock. The city government is cutting jobs. It’s reducing retirement benefits for civil servants. What’s to blame is a seemingly irreversible decline in demand for coal. Natural gas is cheaper and considerably cleaner; renewables are enormously cleaner and increasingly price-competitive.
So is Gillette seeking prosperity in a new economic model? No. “We haven’t given up hope,” says Mayor Louise Carter-King, “that we can get our coal economy back on track.” State officials aren’t giving up either. According to Todd Wilkinson—writing in the January/February issue of Sierra magazine and on the Sierra Club’s website—officials are “holding fast to climate change denial and … staking the state’s future on the pipe dream of a coal revival.” With Wyoming’s coal miners earning over $80,000 a year—excellent pay in a sparsely populated corner of the interior West—it’s no real shock that politicians would rather blame coal’s ills on federal policies, which can be changed via the ballot box, than on economic forces, which follow their own stubborn logic. Barack Obama’s climate policies may be on the way out, but it won’t matter much for coal. The industry is shuffling toward its deathbed.
Climate advocates can justifiably cheer the demise of a hideously polluting industry. But they can also spare some sympathy for coal miners who, in the words of an official with a Wyoming environmental organization, “feel cheated out of security they thought they had. … [C]oal is going away. [R]eally, they are pawns.”
Wilkinson delivers a beatifully written article on the unsurprising short-sightedness of state and local officials—and on the tough breaks faced by hard-working miners who really deserve something better.
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