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Black Butte lays off some employees amidst a declining demand for coal

A piece of heavy equipment moving coal on a surface coal mine.
University of Wyoming Extension

A surface coal mine in Sweetwater County is in the midst of laying off workers because of a decline in nationwide demand for coal. The state is scrambling to help the workers transition out of their jobs.

Black Butte Coal Company, based just east of Rock Springs, laid off 19 employees Sunday, Nov. 26. Most recent federal Mine Safety and Health Administration numbers show the company had 141 workers previously. According to Sweetwater Now, the news site that broke the story, layoffs are expected to continue this week.

“We’re not a stranger to these layoffs,” said Amy Souza, the center manager for the Department of Workforce Services in Rock Springs.

Souza is referencing the Halliburton layoffs in the natural gas industry a few years back.

“The best thing that we could offer them, besides some of our programs, was a place for them to come in, and they didn't feel like the rug was completely pulled out from underneath them,” said Souza.

The department plans to do the same for Black Butte employees. They held a ‘rapid response’ event this week for the employees – which included presentations on how to file for unemployment and future job options in the area, including education options.

“A lot of times you'll see these people come in and they just want some certification so that they can be a little bit more marketable,” Souza said. “One of my Halliburton layoffs is about to graduate with his bachelor's and is going to teach middle school math.”

They can also help employees apply for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act – which provides funding for them to go to Western Wyoming Community College to get a diesel mechanics or welding certification.

Black Butte supplies coal for the nearby Jim Bridger Power Plant, which is in the midst of converting from coal to natural gas by 2030. This is part of the plant’s owner PacifiCorp’s, or Rocky Mountain Power, plan to shift away from coal and to natural gas and renewable options. Sweetwater Now reported that Black Butte’s employees said the layoffs were not a surprise.

In a press release this week, Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon openly called out this push to move away from coal, citing it as a reason that the Black Butte employees were laid off. He specifically named the Department of the Interior and the Office of Surface Mining and Environmental Enforcement as causes of the layoffs.

“The mine has gone through rounds of environmental reviews and Interior continues to throw up additional paper obstacles,” Gordon said, referring to Black Butte’s mine expansion application that hasn’t been approved. “Let’s be clear. This is about coal. That coal could be used at the Jim Bridger Power Plant as part of their plan to use carbon capture.”

PacifiCorp is considering retrofitting some power plant coal units with carbon capture technology because it was mandated by Wyoming law. Supporters of the technology see it as a way to continue burning coal with less emissions, but others say it could come at a huge cost and risk of reliable power to consumers. So, while PacifiCorp is still considering installing the technology on two units at Jim Bridger per Wyoming law, the company’s official resource plan shows those units being converted to natural gas in 2030, which would mean not needing coal from Black Butte.

In addition to Gordon, Wyoming’s U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis also issued a statement about the layoffs.

“Seeing good people lose their jobs is tragic but what makes this situation particularly painful is the fact that it is a direct result of the Biden administration’s war on domestic energy production, and coal in particular,” she said.

However, the market for Wyoming’s coal has declined for over a decade, despite which party or president was in office. This is partly because of utilities in the country choosing to move away from coal, prioritizing other forms of energy.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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