Coal. Guns. Freedom.
A week in the life of the town that keeps your lights on
To live in Wyoming is to drive a lot. There’s not much traffic, save for the 18-wheelers on the interstates. Along some roads, cowboys herd cattle. Wind turbines rise up on a sheer horizon, gleaming massive and white. Coal trains a mile long run into the distance. If you spend enough time on the road, you will see large flatbed trucks carrying tires the size of living rooms. They are bound for a town called Gillette, in the northeastern part of the state.
Wyoming radio offers three reliable choices: new country, old country, and public radio. On February 6, drivers who were tuned to the third option heard an economist named Rob Godby come on the air and say he had spotted an asteroid. “It’s coming right here,” he said, “and there’s really not a lot you can do about it.”
Godby, who is the director of the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy, was referring to the Obama administration’s forthcoming carbon emission regulations. He anticipated that Wyoming would need to adapt to a world moving beyond coal or go the way of the dinosaur. Despite its branding, Wyoming is no longer a Cowboy State or a frontier. It is, economically speaking, a spectacular energy factory. Pinedale and Douglas have oil and gas. Wind is everywhere, fierce and largely untapped for commercial purposes, though a Colorado billionaire is hoping to put the nation’s largest turbine array here. Oil and gas go boom and bust, but for the past 40 years coal has anchored the Wyoming economy. It sits in a vast seam just beneath the high grasslands of the Powder River Basin, a 19,500-square-mile region extending from the northeast part of the state up into Montana. Because it’s just a few hundred feet beneath the surface, it’s easy to access in open-pit mines. Wyoming miners do not go down into holes. They say all you need is a 3-iron.
Every Wyoming resident, myself included, benefits from the Powder River Basin. Mineral industries pay taxes and fees to the state, while individuals don’t. This is a serious draw, as the Wall Street and Silicon Valley executives with part-time homes in Jackson can attest. Last year, taxes on the coal industry accounted for about one-quarter of the state’s revenue. Those who study and teach at the state’s educational institutions — myself, once again, included — are even more reliant: The coal industry has provided roughly $1.9 billion to Wyoming schools since 2005. But, then, you too are probably on the hook, unless you elect to live off the electrical grid. Forty percent of America’s energy comes from coal, and 40 percent of that comes from the Powder River Basin. The miners in the basin want you to know that if you own a Tesla, you are driving a vehicle that is likely powered in part by Wyoming coal.
For the past few years, the coal industry has been bleeding. This is primarily because of the rise of cheap natural gas, but coal also has what public relations specialists would call a messaging challenge. The problem, of course, is climate change. Of all the fossil fuels, coal produces the most carbon emissions. This year, Norway, an oil state, divested from coal because of environmental concerns, and the city of Beijing announced that it would close four coal-fired power plants in favor of ones fueled by gas. Bill Koch, a brother of Charles and David, the famous fossil fuel magnates, recently got out of the coal business, saying that it “has kind of died” in America.
Then, on August 3, the asteroid hit. President Obama announced his administration’s Clean Power Plan, which will require American coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions significantly over the next two decades — by as much as 32 percent by 2030. The Sierra Club responded by organizing celebratory rallies. In Gillette, the headline in the local paper blared
STATE COULD LOSE UP TO 11,000 COAL JOBS. The town’s social media hub, Gillette Area Classifieds, lit up. Someone suggested that coal-fired power plants turn off for a day to show the rest of the country what the Dark Ages felt like. Somebody else wrote, “I need to get in touch with the person selling the miner pissing on Obama stickers.”
How does it feel to be left behind by the nation you help fuel? What is it like losing the war on coal? Wondering that, I packed my car and drove from Laramie to Gillette. Before long, I saw a familiar bumper sticker. It said
WELCOME TO WYOMING. CONSIDER EVERYONE ARMED.
There are two main roads to Gillette: Interstate 90 and the Douglas Highway, or WY-59, which runs south to north for 115 miles, connecting the great energy towns. In between are pronghorn antelope grazing on the Thunder Basin National Grassland, the town of Bill (population: 12), and the three largest coal mines in the United States: Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine, Arch Coal’s Black Thunder, and Cloud Peak Energy’s Cordero Rojo.
After passing strip malls, construction sites, and a sign suggesting that miners get checked out for fly ash, a residue that has been linked to health risks, I headed to South Gillette Avenue, the heart of the historic downtown. This is the only part of Gillette that hearkens back to the Old West. The street still dead-ends at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe station, where two razor-straight tracks head east and west. It features a brewery owned by a coal miner, a store that sells teas and oils, a cupcake shop, two coffee joints, a forthcoming whiskey barber, a cheese shop, a mural of an unsmiling cowboy, and a meadery built out of reclaimed barn wood. Squint hard enough and you could mistake it for a block in Portland. The same can’t be said of the rest of Gillette. Set on a 19-square-mile grid, it has the uniform gleam of a place built in a blink of history’s eye: strip malls, chains, square houses with green lawns and new pickups out front. The recreation center looks like it should train Olympians.
Coal was first discovered in Campbell County in the early 1900s, but development was slow. Powder River Basin coal has high moisture content and burns less efficiently than the competition from, say, West Virginia. Ranching reigned for much of the 20th century. In 1960, the population was 5,861. Then an oil boom arrived, and the county doubled in size over ten years. In 1970, a different sort of asteroid hit. Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, which required power plants to clean or “scrub” pollutants including sulfur dioxide — a leading cause of acid rain — out of coal. With one regulation, the government created demand for Wyoming’s low-sulfur, 3-iron coal. The oil crisis of 1973 further stoked the market. By 1980, ten mines had opened. Today 12 are operating, employing some 5,600 people, or roughly one out of every six adults in the county. That doesn’t include those who build conveyor belts or, say, provide medical care for miners. The Fed giveth, and the Fed taketh away.
Booms have consequences. Other Wyomingites, especially high school kids jealous of Gillette’s wealth and athletic dominance, sometimes call the town’s residents Triple CSers, short for Campbell County Cocksuckers. The town is also, as far as I know, the only one in the state with a syndrome named after it. Bestowed by a psychologist in 1974, “Gillette Syndrome” is a catchall for the societal ills that haunt boomtowns full of transient workers. It was applied widely in the 1970s and ’80s, when Gillette had many man camps, few women, and a corresponding crime rate. These days, people still talk about Gillette Syndrome, but definitions vary. Some say it refers to geographic isolation. Others, the wind. A young coal miner told me it describes people who act like they have a lot of money but really don’t. “You know,” she said. “Triple CSers.”
I walked into one of the coffee shops, owned by a grandmother named Judi Sipe who works 85-hour weeks despite a pronounced limp from a snowmobile wreck. “This hide’s tough,” she told me. It was open-mic night. The talent included a teenage comic about to go away to college, a young girl in pink cowboy boots doing her best Taylor Swift, and a man in an NRA jacket. He took the stage and sang, of all things, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
In the morning I returned to Judi’s coffee shop. When I asked about the regulations, her shoulders sagged. She was hearing that Gillette had two years before it went bust. I asked her about climate change, and she said, “I think it’s Mother Nature. It doesn’t have anything to do with our emissions. But the Bible tells you this is going to happen — that the Antichrist is going to come, that the weather is going to change. We need to get back into morals and taking care of one another.”
The Antichrist? I asked.
“People say Obama is the Antichrist.”
What do you think?
“I straight-up agree.”
I walked by the cupcake store, owned by a 34-year-old woman named Laura Chapman who helps run the Main Street Program, which organizes community events and fundraisers. You can’t go anywhere in Gillette without hearing about a fundraiser. A few years ago, a miner I know named Forrest Gilbert, a former California surfer with shoulder-length blond hair, lost his house in an electrical fire. His mine, Alpha Coal’s Eagle Butte, collected donations. Then the American Legion threw a Super Bowl party fundraiser. The community gave him so much money that he started giving the donations away to others. Judi offered his family enough free coffee to keep them awake for a month.
Everyone I met said that the community’s bond was the best part of life in Gillette. At first this surprised me, given the transience. Oil booms still come and go. Last year, Campbell County produced more barrels of oil than anywhere else in the state. This year, prices are down, and so is the number of North Dakota license plates in town. People speak ill of the oil guys in Gillette — “boys with toys,” I heard them called, who come in briefly, cause trouble, and leave. Not coal miners, though. Their business is the town’s rock: reliable, profitable, relatively safe. Last year, one coal miner died on the job in Wyoming, compared with ten oil and gas workers.
In the window of the cupcake shop was a flier advertising a 5K run to raise money for breast cancer and another for a pro-coal rally. Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the leasing of public subsurface mineral rights to coal companies, were coming to town Thursday to hold a meeting. The bureau was considering raising the royalty rate it charged companies for the privilege of digging up coal — salt on top of the forthcoming EPA regulations — and residents had arranged a rally. The flier read
STOP THE ADMINISTRATION’S WAR ON THE WEST.
Down the block, the owner of the meadery, a muscle-bound 28-year-old firefighter named Sam Clikeman, was organizing a street festival with bands playing on his roof. The block at the northern end of Gillette Avenue was closed. Large men with wild beards stood around: volunteer security. I asked one of them what he thought Gillette would look like if the regulations went into effect. “Ever been to Bill?” he asked. Inside the meadery, people drank honey wine from cattle horns. On the wall was various taxidermy and, in a frame, a bloodstained shirt that a friend of the owner’s had worn while surviving a leopard attack in Africa. A Cloud Peak Energy tent was propped up near the north entrance to the block.
I went into the cheese shop, where the owner, who wore a
JESUS SAVES belt buckle, told me that President Obama was a Muslim. Such sentiments would, over the course of the week, become routine. To ask about the president was to invite vitriol. It was as though one man had single-handedly fabulated global warming, designed the solar panel, and created the hydraulic-fracturing technology that has allowed natural gas producers to undercut the coal industry. “That black sonuvabitch in Washington” was the phrase used by a man with thinning dyed blond hair and a gold chain.
The street started to fill up. I sought out Laura, the cupcake-store owner. “People say coal is bad,” she said, “but where’s your power coming from? Everyone uses it, but we’re the ones who are going to suffer. Maybe people don’t care about us. Are they just going to leave us to figure it out?”
On top of the meadery, a former Campbell County High football player took the stage with his country band. I wandered over to talk to a 23-year-old mural artist named McKennon Aragon. He was standing with his girlfriend, Tianna, a 20-year-old dance teacher and the younger sister of Laura Chapman. Tianna and McKennon own a house together and deeply love Wyoming. “It’s one of the last open places you can feel free,” McKennon told me. A hunting, fishing Democrat, he was an outlier in Gillette. Both he and Tianna had read the summary of the EPA regulations.
“You can’t deny climate change is an issue,” McKennon said. “2014 was the hottest year on record. The question is, do you want to be loyal to your community or to the world we live in? We have to take care of the world. But it doesn’t mean we should shut Gillette down all at once. There’s plenty of open space for solar. If you’re from Wyoming, you know everything about wind.”
The sun slipped behind the band. A coal train rolled by, bound for Montana, or maybe Georgia.
Gillette is not going to disappear tomorrow. If the regulations go into effect — multiple states, including Wyoming, are mounting legal challenges — coal will still be supplying much of the nation’s energy in ten years. The question is whether coal will sustain Gillette in 2050, when most power plants will either have been upgraded or shuttered. Maybe the world will move on. Maybe someone will figure out how to store solar on a grand scale. Coal advocates pray that someone will figure out an affordable way to capture carbon emissions and store them underground. Two plants using that technology, in Saskatchewan and Mississippi, are currently running over budget, in one case by hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If carbon capture can’t be done cheap enough,” Godby, the University of Wyoming economist, told me, “and if solar is going to come down in cost, we may not have room for coal on an economic basis.” Still, he said, “When the last coal train pulls out, it will pull out of the Powder River Basin.”
I walked down to the railroad tracks to look for coal trains. There I met Katie Buffington, a 26-year-old reading teacher and former miner with spiked hair and a tattoo on her arm that read
I SOLEMNLY SWEAR THAT I AM UP TO NO GOOD. She grew up in Wright, a town to the southwest, where she was valedictorian in a class of 22. She completed a college internship program at Cloud Peak’s Cordero Rojo mine, where her father was a heavy-machinery operator, then received her master’s degree in English and became a roller derby star for two local teams, the Coal Miners’ Daughters and the Rousta Bout It Betties. I asked her if she could imagine Gillette with a diversified economy — maybe McKennon Aragon’s wind and solar hub. “People don’t welcome it,” she said.
We walked into a bar on Gillette Avenue. Inside, Katie ran into a friend of her dad’s named Shawn Beeson. Shawn wore a T-shirt that said
I’M A HUGGER. Originally from South Dakota, he had spent his career in the oil, methane, and coal industries, most recently for Cloud Peak. I mentioned that I was planning to tour Cordero Rojo, and his eyes lit up. “When you see the Belle Fourche,” he said, referring to the river that runs through the mine site, “that’s me.”
Miners in the basin are quick to tell you about their reclamation process, in which they reshape, regrade, and sod the ground after mining it. Shawn helped move the whole river. “We’re proud of the work we do,” he said. “People say we’re raping the earth. Well, it’s better than when we found it!”
Shawn’s defensiveness was understandable. Coal miners are in a lonely place. Americans love the narrative of high-paying blue-collar labor: the guy with a high school degree who can get a good job, put up the picket fence, and send his kids to college. The steel industry’s crash, in the 1980s, inspired national sympathy. More recently, the fall of Detroit’s auto business led to a governmental bailout. But by and large, Americans do not feel concern for coal companies or the people who work for them. Shawn felt vilified because he is vilified.
I asked him if he’d read the regulations. “I won’t read them,” he said. “I hope this doesn’t offend you, but in the time I could spend reading them I could be teaching my kids to use firearms and defend themselves.”
I asked what he thought the town needed to do. He paused and said, “We just need to do what we do. Put our heads down and work hard.”
If there is a better classic country station in America than Gillette’s 93.3 The Legend, I’d like to hear it. The station plays Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. It also airs bad jokes. An example: “Legend thought for the day: To make sure you hit your target, fire first, then call whatever you hit your target.” Occasionally, though, it offers public service announcements from the Campbell County Prevention Council encouraging people to seek out help for mental health issues.
I was listening to The Legend as I drove to the council’s offices on Monday afternoon. Wyoming has a suicide problem. Three years ago, its per capita rate was the highest in the country. It now sits in fourth, with a ratio of 21 deaths per 100,000 people. This is nearly double the national average. Some counties have suffered more than others. So far this year, Campbell County has seen 12 suicides, making for a ratio of 25 deaths per 100,000 people. McKennon Aragon told me he knew five suicide victims, Katie Buffington “a few.”
I walked into a small office on the second floor of a building in a strip mall and met Spring Wilkins, a 34-year-old prevention specialist. I started to ask about her work, tentatively, and she cut me off and got right to it. There had been two suicides on Friday — both young men under the age of 25.
Wilkins noted that suicide is so individual that it defies easy explanation. Still, Wyoming has particular challenges. Campbell County, for instance, has just two psychologists and two psychiatrists for its 48,000 residents. To see them, you must check yourself in to the fifth floor of the local hospital. The setting isn’t exactly welcoming. As one elected official told me, “If you think about going to the fifth floor, you think, electrodes time.”
Also, guns are everywhere. Residents of Wyoming are not required to register firearms or get permits to carry concealed weapons. The overwhelming majority of suicides by minors in Campbell County have been with a firearm.
There’s another factor. The state’s culture stems from ranching, in which, as Wilkins said, you don’t get help “unless you need something amputated.” Gillette’s Western toughness is no affect: It is cold and windy country, and energy shift workers operate heavy machinery for 12 hours at a stretch. That people rally around one another in the event of, say, a house fire is admirable, but self-reliance has severe limits when confronting something as complex as suicide. “People don’t want to talk about it,” Laura Sundstrom, the county coroner, later told me, “but we need to talk about it. We have a problem.”
The possibility of a downtick in the coal industry has mental health counselors and elected officials on edge. Of the 41 suicides the Campbell County Coroner’s Office has investigated in the past four years, ten victims were unemployed. Sundstrom put it this way: “We will see suicide with job loss.”
Not long after the EPA regulations were announced, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services and the state’s prevention-management organization started arranging meetings to think up ways to anticipate job losses — career training, outreach to wives, and a series of best practices to share with energy companies considering layoffs. Wilkins told me she was optimistic about a new research program the Department of Health was sponsoring in Gillette based loosely on a successful suicide-reduction initiative that the Air Force has employed. Recently, a tattoo parlor in Gillette called Felony Ink has offered to donate half its proceeds to the prevention council for a tattoo in the shape of a semicolon, designed to raise suicide awareness.
But meetings and research go only so far. Seventy percent of Wyoming’s revenue comes from extractive industries. When those industries suffer, so do public services. In the last two legislative sessions, state funding for substance abuse and suicide prevention has been cut by $4 million. “We as a state don’t have enough resources for mental health,” Wilkins told me.
Before I left, Wilkins said something that, I thought, encapsulated the feeling in town — a new kind of Gillette Syndrome maybe: “It makes you feel helpless if the whole world is saying, ‘Coal is going to die.’ It reinforces the mentality of us versus them. On the one hand, we get pissed and look for someone to blame. On the other, we get treated like rednecks. Anytime you make a value judgment of other people’s lifestyle, you’re probably out of line. There are many people who wouldn’t last five minutes here. Wyoming is a hard place to live.”
Then she added, “We are not going to be Detroit. We are tougher than that.”
A tall blond man stood next to a trophy case full of safety awards. On the front of his hard hat was a black sticker that read
COAL GUNS FREEDOM. Named Brian Wenig, he was the lead engineer at Cloud Peak’s Cordero Rojo mine, and he was to be my tour guide. Along with another guest and the public relations director for Cloud Peak, Rick Curtsinger, who is 32 but looks younger, we walked down a linoleum hall, past a sign on a wall that read
WE CAN DIG IT! As we reached the stairs, Curtsinger asked us to please hold the handrails — a spill could mess up Cordero’s safety record.
In a conference room, Wenig, who is 57, showed us slides outlining the strip-mining and reclamation process in the Powder River Basin. It begins with shovel operators clearing off topsoil. Then blasters drill down into the earth above a coal seam, insert explosive liquids, and — Kaboom! — the ground falls in. Wenig paused and replayed the explosion — “just because it’s kind of fun,” he said.
After the blasting, heavy machinery comes in to clear away more dirt — “overburden” in industry speak. Once a seam is mined, the operators are responsible for regrading and reclaiming the pit using the original topsoil. Wenig showed us a slide of a pronghorn. “These guys think this is a game refuge,” he said.
We drove out to see the mine. The road network is ever changing, a channel that’s continually being rerouted to access a new swath of coal. We curled through high dirt walls; it felt like descending into a big gray sandbox. Eventually, we came to a place where the resources required to produce cheap energy were on full display: a pit as long as the Golden Gate Bridge. A $100 million, 7,000-ton vehicle called a dragline that resembles a giant crane picked up clods of earth, swung them around to another side of the canyon, and let its bucket drop.
Two men worked the dragline — one operator and one “oiler,” who performs maintenance. According to Curtsinger, both made an hourly wage of about $50, which includes health benefits, plus a 401(k). Soon the shovel and haul trucks would come in, hauling away coal. It would be dumped into a crusher and then into silos and onto conveyor belts and trains, where it would be covered with sealant; it would travel to power plants, where it would be burned and transmitted via power lines to homes across the country. Cloud Peak bought coal from the government for $1 per ton and sold it for about $11.
Before the company could even dig up the coal, it had to buy surface rights from landowners and bid on the underground mineral rights in a lease sale run by the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, Cloud Peak paid $69 million in leasing fees, $354 million in federal and state taxes, and netted $79 million. That beat this year — so far in 2015, the company has lost nearly $58 million. It has two great hopes. The first is to develop a massive mine on the Crow reservation in Montana, on the north end of the Basin. The second is to export its coal to Asia via an export terminal in Washington, which has been stymied by local opposition.
We drove to a vista overlooking the Belle Fourche that Shawn said he’d regraded. The grasslands in the Powder River Basin are naturally choppy and rough, covered in sagebrush and quickly eroding, but here the plains looked manicured, almost like a rolling golf course. Birds flew in and out of cottonwood trees bordering an S-curve river. I put my hands over my eyes, encircling the scene and imagining Wenig’s wildlife refuge. A haul truck larger than my house rolled into my field of vision. Its tires cost $40,000 each.
Gillette in early August is a good place to burst an eardrum. The town has hosted the Pyrotechnic Guild International’s annual summit four times. Pyros come from Venezuela, China, New Zealand, and Guatemala, filling the hotels and convening to blow things up each evening in a large open field.
This summer Wyoming celebrated its 125th anniversary, so Governor Matt Mead attended the event for the first time. As the sun lowered, he walked out to the middle of the field. A thousand or so people sat in the bleachers behind him, and it was announced that the governor would light a ceremonial display in the shape of a bucking bronco that had been designed by the Junior Pyrotechnics Association.
The governor wore a cowboy hat. Someone handed him a mic. “Here we are in the energy capital of the world, at the best fireworks festival in the world!” he boomed. There was a smattering of light applause.
The announcer, whose beard resembled a hedge, entreated, “Governor, would you like to shoot some shells?”
“You know it. I’m ready to rock this place!”
He pushed a remote control, and the bucking bronco started to wriggle around and emanate black smoke.
Jordan’s Western Dining, on the Douglas Highway just south of town, has gas fireplaces, massive stone walls, and a menu that includes rib-eye and lobster. Tonight, the night before the big pro-coal rally, the place was packed from elk mount to elk mount.
I took a seat near the bar, and three men sat down nearby: Curtsinger, Cloud Peak’s public relations representative, and two of the company’s executives. One, Jim Orchard, a trim 55-year-old Australian, was the senior vice president of marketing and government affairs. The other, Richard Reavey, the vice president of public affairs, had recently moved to Cloud Peak’s Colorado headquarters from Pelham, New York. “I had never been out West,” he told me. Reavey is 48 with swept-over silver hair. Soon all three joined me. Reavey’s specialty was, as he put it, “defending corporations from the menace of government.” Before joining Cloud Peak he had worked in private consulting and for Philip Morris, the tobacco giant.
What, I asked, did they expect for the meeting tomorrow?
“I’ve never been to one of these things where there’s any yelling and screaming,” Orchard said. “It’s not like a Bernie Sanders rally. The folks out here are good, honest people. They just want to earn a living, bring up their families, go to church, and play little-league baseball.”
Reavey told a story about using bait to hunt coyote in Maine. The co-owner, Jordan Fischer, walked over. “You are in excellent company here,” she told me. She pointed out that Cloud Peak’s brand — the letters CP — is burned into a beam above the bar. It’s right next to the brand of Dick Cheney, a friend of her father’s.
The sign outside the Campbell County Library read
PROUD TO PROVIDE AMERICA’s ENERGY. It was coal black and festooned with red, white, and blue balloons. The representatives from the Bureau of Land Management weren’t scheduled to arrive for two hours — the listening session about the proposal to increase coal royalties was scheduled for 1 p.m. — but people started arriving outside the library at about 11. Some wore T-shirts that read
LEGALIZE COAL or
MY CRAFT ALLOWS ME TO BLAST ANYTHING IN THE WORLD.
Reavey stood near the entrance to the library wearing a crisp white shirt open at the collar, Ray-Bans, and matching leather shoes and belt. I approached and asked a question about emissions.
“Look, I think it’s a legitimate concern that people have with regard to global warming,” he said. “The problem is not the concern. It’s the proposed solution by this administration.”
He advocated for carbon capture and blamed the technology’s struggles so far on the absence of front-end investment. The reason for the lack of initiative, he said, was the government’s subsidies for renewable energy. He didn’t mention the steep federal tax breaks the coal industry receives, or that when Cloud Peak buys mineral rights from the government it typically does so in non-competitive auctions, which explains why it can purchase coal for about $1 a ton. Then, in what felt like an odd aside, he assailed “the administration’s billionaire backers,” claiming that Obama was promoting solar to appease the likes of former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg and California investor Tom Steyer. I interjected, saying that others might suggest that coal had the backing of people like the Koch brothers, who have funded pro-fossil-fuel lobbying groups like Americans for Prosperity and anti-climate-change think tanks like the Heartland Institute.
“Show me the coal billionaire,” he snapped. “Point him out. I can name Tom Steyer. I can name Mike Bloomberg. I can name Paul Allen.” It sounded a little far-fetched. Cloud Peak, despite its recent losses, has nearly $2 billion in assets. Reavey, eating a hot dog, pilloried the artificial promotion of renewable energy: “Look, if we get to a point where you tell me that wind and solar are viable, and they deliver more reliable affordable energy than coal, then coal’s gone!”
And what will you do then? I asked.
“I don’t know. I mean, I’ll do something else,” he said. “The people who work here in mines are screwed.”
He took a bite of his hot dog.
Wyoming’s entire congressional delegation arrived: Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Representative Cynthia Lummis. The delegation gathered with a few hundred miners in a tent out back. Next to the dais was a sign with a photo of Tom Steyer, Paul Allen, and Mike Bloomberg. The sign said
WHO BENEFITS: THE ADMINISTRATION ROBBING THE POOR TO PAY OFF THEIR RICH BACKERS.
Gillette mayor Louise Carter-King spoke first: “We are changing minds and breaking through the preconceived notions of coal!”
Senator Enzi came next: “I’ve got a president who doesn’t understand money!”
Congresswoman Lummis followed: “We should use what God has given us!”
Then Reavey took the stage. He called the forthcoming listening session “a Soviet-style show trial.” He talked about Obama’s “crybaby billionaire backers” who, he said, “want the president to deliver a return on their investment on renewable energy!” He said that, together, everyone in attendance should “send a very clear message from the West, and that’s to stay in D.C. and stay out of our business!”
It was time for the listening session. One by one, people got up to air their grievances. The tone was cordial. There was nothing untoward, at least from the citizens of Gillette.
I returned to Gillette a month later. The town felt quiet. Construction continued on Douglas Highway. No mines had announced layoffs, but two oil companies had. The Legend played beautiful songs between dark jokes.
I drove to the American Legion to meet Forrest Gilbert, the coal miner who lost his house in a fire a few years ago. He’d just finished operating an overburden shovel at Eagle Butte mine, north of town. Eagle Butte is owned by Alpha Natural Resources, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy just before Obama announced the Clean Power Plan. Still, Forrest wasn’t too worried. “The way I look at it is,” he said, “until I show up and they say, ‘Sorry, you’re not employed here,’ I’m going to do my job and be happy.” Forrest loved the night shift. No one was blasting, and he could work quickly. “Night shift, as a shovel operator, is when you’re getting your loads.”
He preferred working dirt shovels to coal shovels. “I don’t like coal,” he said. “It’s a slow pace. I’m too wound up to do that.” He paused. “I shouldn’t say I don’t like coal. I don’t like operating coal.”
Actually, Forrest loved coal. It had given his family a good life. It let him travel — one week off a month, during which he visited his dad in Oregon and took his kids wakeboarding.
“The regulations they want to set are unreal,” he said. “It can’t happen. There will be a lot of people in the dark.” He had no plans to go anywhere. He pointed to an older guy sitting at a nearby table. “Look at Moses. He retired after 30 years. Doesn’t have a worry in the world. I’m hoping that’ll be me one day.”