Powder River Basin

ClimateWire's Harball previews new series on region's future amid coal manufacturing decline

As coal prices face a steady decline and companies move to shut down operations, what is the future of coal in the Powder River Basin? In a new four-part series, ClimateWire tells the stories of two towns facing the effects of coal market shifts combined with new climate policies. On today's The Cutting Edge, ClimateWire reporter Elizabeth Harball previews the series and discusses the political impacts of the region's economic woes.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to The Cutting Edge. As coal prices face a steady decline and companies move to shut down operations, what is the future of coal in the Powder River Basin? In a new four-part series, ClimateWire explores the stories of two towns facing layoffs and climate policies. Elizabeth Harball from ClimateWire joins me today with a preview of the series.

Elizabeth, you and our colleague Brittany Patterson traveled to Colstrip, Montana, and Gillette, Wyoming, two U.S. coal towns that are facing layoffs and dramatic changes. What happened recently to the economies in these two cities?

Elizabeth Harball: In the last week Wyoming saw the largest layoffs in Powder River Basin history. Arch Coal and Peabody announced the elimination of 465 positions, which is a huge blow to an area which up until fairly recently has withstood the challenges facing the coal industry fairly well.

In Colstrip the situation is not as dire. Colstrip is home to a massive coal-fired power plant and a mine that feeds it, and it employs about 770 people in this town of about 2,300.

Recently in Washington and Oregon laws passed strongly indicating these states would like to move away from getting electricity from this plant, and much of this plant's electricity is sent to that state.

It's partially due to economic concerns about the plant, but it is also a lot having to do with concerns about climate change in those more liberal states.

Monica Trauzzi: And you traveled to Colstrip, you drove around talking to residents. What did you hear from them?

Elizabeth Harball: Well the first thing that you notice about Colstrip is the coal plant. It's at the center of the community. It's huge, but the second thing that's really noticeable is this is a very healthy, middle-class community at this point. There is a golf course. There's bike paths. People are paying off mortgages on five-bedroom homes and they're young families who they're not worried about climate change. They're worried about maintaining their lifestyle and their community.

They at this point view the actions in Washington and Oregon and federal climate regulations as a direct attack on their lifestyle.

Monica Trauzzi: So if not coal, what are the other that are available to residents?

Elizabeth Harball: In Colstrip it would be a real challenge. As I said, a huge percentage of the town is employed by the plant or the mine. Talking to people there and leaders there, there's very little interest in diversification. One person told me, "Coal is our baby and should be our baby."

There are people in Montana outside of Colstrip who suggest they find another use for the two huge transmission lines leading a plant, but those kind of discussions are really in very early stages.

In Wyoming in general there's a big push to find alternative uses for coal. The state has poured millions of dollars into the University of Wyoming to research technologies like advanced carbon, which is what you find in your Brita filter. However, Brittany Patterson, who traveled there, talking to local leaders found that there is an acknowledgement that that push is in its infancy and Wyoming really does face some big challenges still.

Monica Trauzzi: So how are states in the Powder River Basin handling the stay of EPA's Clean Power Plan, and what types of climate and energy policies are we seeing coming out of those states?

Elizabeth Harball: Montana was among the first states to halt planning for the Clean Power Plan immediately after the stay. That governor is facing a lot of pressure a lot having to do with Colstrip.

Wyoming, I actually spoke to Governor Mead immediately after the stay, and immediately after the stay he indicated that he was interested in continuing to plan for the Clean Power Plan. However, the Wyoming Legislature in its budget recently moved to restrict most of the funding for the state's Clean Power Plan planning efforts, and the governor did sign that into law.

Monica Trauzzi: There's a political angle here as well. How are the political futures of some folks being affected?

Elizabeth Harball: Well, Governor Bullock of Montana is a Democrat, and he's in a re-election cycle right now. He's being challenged by a Republican, Greg Gianforte, who's really attacking the governor's approach to the Clean Power Plan and to Colstrip.

However, it should be mentioned Governor Bullock isn't a huge supporter of the Clean Power Plan. He did not put up a fuss when the attorney general sued the rule. He said, "The federal government moved the goal posts on us," is one of his statements. As I said, he immediately halted planning for the Clean Power Plan after the stay.

Gianforte, however, is much more vocal in his opposition of federal climate regulations, and that seems to be resonating with some Montana voters.

Monica Trauzzi: It's a very dynamic issue. It's a great series running next week. ... ClimateWire --

Elizabeth Harball: Correct.

Monica Trauzzi: We'll look for it. Thank you for coming on the show.

Elizabeth Harball: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: More Cutting Edge coming next Friday. We'll see you then.

[End of Audio]



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