Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor, National Geographic Explorer and MIT science journalism fellow. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE documentary series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project’s website. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
This Wyoming coal town is a place of contradictions. At dawn, the land looks heavenly: Winds rattle the sagebrush; cotton-candy skies make a dusting of snow glow in pastel hues. Later in the afternoon, though, you look to the horizon and see the Earth hemorrhaging gray dust as trucks haul coal from pits the size of suburbs.
Gillette is the hub of a region called the Powder River Basin, which produces roughly 40% of US coal. West Virginia’s coal country gets more attention, but Wyoming produces more coal at this point. Gillette is the town that powers America – at least it did for decades.
But as the urgency of the climate crisis has become more apparent, markets have shifted toward cheaper and cleaner electricity sources – wind, solar and natural gas. Residents here know that the Biden administration, which rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and promises a 100% clean electric grid by 2035, could help push Gillette out of existence.
Moving away from coal is essential to fighting back against worsening droughts, storms and sea-level rise around the world. That fight will only get harder if America keeps burning coal.
To some degree, Gillette understand this. It’s a place that simultaneously calls itself the “Energy Capital of the Nation” while also planning for a future in which the fossil fuel industry may not exist.
I drove here in January after Steve Gray, a 56-year-old resident who’s been laid off from both the coal and oil industries in northeastern Wyoming, left CNN a voicemail after the 2020 presidential election. I’ve been exploring your questions about the climate crisis as part of an ongoing series for CNN Opinion, and Gray’s message seemed to bring up some of the toughest questions concerning what must be a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.
“Everybody in this town is afraid that it is going to become a ghost town,” he said.
Implicitly, Gray seemed to be asking: What will happen to Gillette – and other fossil fuel towns – as the coal industry recedes and clean-energy goals are realized? And what difference could the Biden administration or Congress make for a dying town built on coal?
Climate advocates tend to lump solutions to all of these issues under an umbrella term: “just transition.” Not like, “just get on with this transition already.” “Just” as in fair.
Gray, the man who called CNN, doesn’t see anything fair about it.
“People are getting left behind,” he told me.
He and others I met in Gillette want the rest of the country to realize that they’ve worked hard, for decades, to supply the United States with electricity. They didn’t own the companies that got rich off the boom in coal and other fossil fuels – companies that hid research showing the disastrous effects of climate change, or that funded disinformation campaigns.
They were just working.
Working in an industry created by federal policies that failed to price carbon pollution – that encouraged the mining of coal on land owned by the US government.
And now they’re being asked to stop.
Both by markets, which value cheaper energy sources.
And, importantly, by climate advocates like myself, who understand, based on science that’s been amassing for decades, that global warming poses an existential threat to humanity.
What do we owe Gillette and its workers?
There’s an important irony hidden in the story of Gillette.
The US government willed much of this place into existence.
This nudge came in a few forms. One was federal support for domestic energy production in the early 1970s – a time when overseas markets were seen as volatile and problematic.
Another was environmental regulation.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 and its 1990 amendments targeted, among other pollutants, sulfur dioxide, which is a component of smog and acid rain. Powder River Basin coal just so happens to be naturally lower in sulfur than coal found in Appalachia and elsewhere.
Before 1970, there were a few coal mines and oil rigs in the Gillette area, Robert Henning, director of a local history museum, the Campbell County Rockpile Museum, told me. We were standing in front of a wall-sized image of 1920s Gillette, which had the look of a sepia-tone Western outpost – a dusty landscape with wooden fences and magnificent rolling hills on the horizon. Gillette was founded in the late 1800s as a railroad town – named for a surveyor. But after 1970 and the Clean Air Act, Henning told me, the then-localized mining industry exploded.
In 1960, the population of Campbell County, which includes Gillette, was about 5,800.
By 1970, it had more than doubled – to nearly 13,000.
During the boom, the town was so crowded and chaotic that some families lived in tents, said Jim Ford, a Gillette resident who advises local government agencies and non-profits on economic and energy issues. Ford told me that when he was a child, his elementary school adopted a two-shift schedule to accommodate all the students. One group started at 6:00 AM and went until noon. Then the other started, ending at 6:00 p.m.
Steve Gray told me that his family was one of the ones that came to the region to work in the fossil fuel industry in the early 1970s. His dad worked in the oil fields, and so did Gray, at least for a time.
That was when life was good. Work was free-flowing. Wages were high.
The coal in the Powder River Basin sits near the surface and is mined with giant trucks carrying shovels so big you can fit a large family inside. The scale of the operation is difficult to comprehend. “Our largest mine is roughly 90 square miles,” said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney at the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an environmental group.
These mines grew and grew.
But any boomtown worker knows that kind of growth can’t last forever.
‘The economy just collapsed’
The year 2016 – that was the worst of it, according to the mayor.
That was when the “economy just collapsed.”
“The energy industries always have been boom-and-bust, but this was a big one,” said Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King, who keeps an image of her father, who also was mayor of Gillette, hanging behind her desk. Her roots in the community are deep, and her husband works in coal. From her office window, you can see one of two coal-fired power-plants puffing smoke into the sky. “It was like a perfect storm because oil went down, coal went down, natural gas – everything.” The bust was caused primarily by lower natural gas and renewable energy prices, less demand from coal-fired power plants, which continue to close, and concerns about climate-change regulations, according to economists.
Most of the coal mined near Gillette sits on public land, meaning that the state government collects royalty payments and other taxes on its production. Wyoming doesn’t have a state income tax and its property and sales taxes are notoriously low. Many years, well over half of the state’s tax revenue comes from the coal, oil and gas industries.
After the bust, Carter-King said she knew Gillette would have rethink everything.
Gray told me that his call to CNN was influenced by how things fell apart with the oil and coal industries shortly before and after 2016, the year US voters elected President Donald Trump – who’d promised to bring back “beautiful, clean coal.” Nearly 90% of Campbell County residents voted for Trump again in 2020. But you won’t find too many people in Gillette who believe Trump kept his promises to coal workers – or that it was even possible to keep them.
Wyoming coal production peaked in 2008 at 468 million short tons, according to the US Energy Information Administration. By 2016, it was 297 million tons, creeping down to 277 million in 2019, nearing the end of Trump’s term. Last year’s figures are not yet available, but the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on demand for energy is known to have contributed to widespread collapse in the energy industry.
Gray says he was laid off from an oil field job in 2015, then subsequently from another job in oil and then one in coal last year. His wife left him shortly after the first layoff, he said.
These days, Gray is working again, driving railroad workers to and from job sites – part of a broader industry that supports the mines and fossil fuels. (Mayor Carter-King estimates most people’s jobs in Gillette are linked to coal and other fossil fuel industries – whether directly or indirectly). But Gray said that he’s eaten through his savings.
My “bank accounts were drained – lost my house, all the repossessions,” he said.
“It was tough.”
He’s living on the razor-thin margins of a bust economy.
‘The coal industry’s on its last leg’
Here’s an inconvenient truth: Towns like Gillette tend to fail.
I asked economists, environmentalists and policy experts. None could provide a sunny case study – the story of a town whose main industry didn’t take the initiative to remake itself.
“There’s not a sterling example,” said Jake Higdon, a senior US climate policy analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund who has contributed to several reports on fossil fuel communities.
Timber towns, auto towns, military town, mining towns – the logical progression is toward “ghost town” status if the town isn’t big enough, or industries aren’t diverse enough.
In even trying to rebuild, then, Gillette aims to do something unprecedented.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. “Maybe our chances of remaking our community in a generation – so my kids have something to come back to – are 10%,” said Ford, the county consultant. “But I know if we don’t try, the chances are zero.”
On a recent snowy morning, I dropped by Lula Belle’s Café – “non-smoking as of 4/1/2020” – near the railyard in Gillette. It’s a welcoming, chatty kind of place – fruit pies on display behind the diner counter. I wanted to learn whether people here were in denial about coal’s demise.
“Will the mines bounce back? No,” said Doug Wood, a retired coal miner with a mustache that’s twirls at the tips. “The coal industry’s kind of on its last leg.”
What’s next then?
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with a TV show called ‘The Jetsons?’”
I found that sentiment – the coal part, not the Jetsons – to be a common refrain in Gillette. Frankly, I was stunned by the degree to which the mayor, county development officials and people like Gray accept the unsettling facts of coal’s decline.
Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development, a local non-profit that’s funded by industry as well as city and county government, told me that he hopes children who are growing up in Gillette 50 years from now won’t even know that this was a coal town.
“It’s going to be a tough transition for this community,” Christopherson said, “and we’re doing our best to prepare for that, so we still have a community here in five, 10 or 50 years.”
Yet, Gillette remains conflicted.
While claiming it wants something new, local and state leadership continues to push coal products and technologies – many of them expensive and unproven – as the future.
You’ll hear some people calling Gillette “Carbon Valley” – as in the Silicon Valley of coal. Coal research, they say, is what’s next. As are new and supposedly cleaner uses for coal.
One such project, called the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, or ITC, sits at the base of a coal-fired power plant – painted blue and white as if it might blend into the sky.
Jason Begger, the project’s managing director, told me to think of the site as an “RV park” for researchers interested in capturing carbon-dioxide pollution from the power plant and doing something else with it – potentially “sequestering” the gas deep in the rock underfoot.
The idea is that if most of that CO2 pollution is captured and stored away somewhere, coal can keep burning, because it wouldn’t contribute heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. It’s reasonable to place some hope in the technology given the fact that carbon pollution needs to reach “net zero” by about 2050 in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. But carbon-capture and storage has proven to be costly and troublesome compared to alternatives.
Begger told me the world needs to recalibrate its expectations.
“I have a 2-year-old daughter, and it’s kind of like saying, ‘Well, in 20 years, she’ll be in the Olympics,” he said. “We [would] have to see if she can crawl and walk” before signing her up for the Olympics.
The state has been trying coal-spending technology for years, said Anderson, the environmentalist, with little to no results. She says she remains “very skeptical” of it – as do I.
Wyoming, meanwhile, also has some of the nation’s greatest potential for wind energy, according to the American Clean Power Association, an industry group. PacifiCorp, the massive power company that is retiring some of its coal power plants in Wyoming, recently opened a large wind farm – 520 megawatts, enough to power about 150,000 homes, according to Laine Anderson, the company’s director of wind operations – about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Gillette.
Yet, Wyoming is a rare state that also taxes wind power – rather than incentivizing its production as a much-needed clean energy source.
“Wyoming’s leaders have done little to pivot our state’s economy away from this volatile industry,” the Casper Star-Tribune’s editorial board wrote of coal in 2019.
Perhaps Gillette is less a place of contradictions than one of surprises.
Steve Gray lives in a small apartment complex near the highway. He answered the door on a recent blizzardy morning wearing a denim, pearl-snap shirt and fuzzy red slippers.
After his layoffs from the oil and coal industries, he lost the house he shared with his ex-wife and son, who is now 25. For a while, he moved back in with his father. But now here’s here, and when he welcomes you in you can feel the pride he takes in the place.
On the living room walls are the portraits he’s taken with his son, an oil field worker in a community south of Gillette, and Steve’s grandchildren. In these photos, Steve wears his trademark cowboy hat, a broomstick mustache and a contented grandfather’s grin.
Nearby, you’ll find the military honors – a Purple Heart and Bronze Star – bestowed on his elder relatives. Gray says he, too, served in the Navy and he values service to country.
It’s hard to talk here about a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers – as if any transition for workers in dying US industries ever has been “just.” Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, which aims to unite labor and environmental interests around the issue of a transition for dislocated fossil fuel workers, told me there’s no justice in what happened to auto workers or timber workers – or in what’s happening to fossil fuel workers now.
“We are insisting that policy makers pay attention,” Walsh said. “It is not acceptable to leave any workers or any communities behind. We have an obligation to fulfill to workers and communities that have powered this country for generations and have often paid a very stiff price in terms of the health of their environments and their people and their workers.”
I agree with that sentiment. In seeking a transition away from fossil fuels – which, again, is required by science if we want to continue living on a habitable planet – we must learn from the mistakes of the past. That’s the only way America can inch closer toward justice.
Among history’s lessons, according to Walsh: The investments must be bigger than before.
Walsh advised the Obama administration on a grants program – called the POWER+ Plan – that aimed to help diversify the economies of coal towns in the Appalachian Mountains.
That program and others failed to fully address the full needs of these communities, according to policy experts I interviewed. But there’s a consensus emerging on what’s needed now, including: job retraining, community college investments, wage replacement, healthcare extensions, pension extensions – and jobs that help repair land scarred from decades of intensive mining. Advocates are, smartly, in my view, pushing the White House to create an office focused on this economic transition – assisting fossil fuel communities and creating new jobs, according to advocates involved in these efforts.
Colorado recently took a step in this direction by creating an Office of Just Transition. Wyoming and other fossil-fuel states should do the same. And, importantly, it would be wise of the Biden administration to make good on its campaign promises to fight climate change aggressively – getting to “net zero” emissions as soon as possible – while also creating jobs.
Their focus should be on struggling towns like Gillette.
Listening to them – and helping – could be both a political and moral victory.
Wyoming is a state as red as they come.
President Joe Biden and the Democrats who now control Congress could earn respect, if not votes, for telling coal country the truth – that coal must be phased out of the national energy mix, but that workers will not be left behind. That means they should get job training, health care, wage replacement and, when possible, jobs in the new industries that are popping up to replace fossil fuels. This suite of policy solutions is complex, but they must be taken seriously, and the discussion must forward the voices of fossil-fuel workers. Workers need to know that climate advocates respect and support them before we can move forward.
This requires risk.
It requires trust.
That’s something Gray showed when he reached across cultural lines to call CNN.
“I figured, well, yeah, I’m going to call. I’ll never get any return, but it’ll make me feel better, you know?” Gray said. “I just – I’m kind of glad that you guys did contact me.”
The Biden administration should answer the call, too.