Coal decline hits fuel's Western stronghold

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 25, 2013 at 5:37 pm •  Published: January 25, 2013
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Despite the logistical hurdles, some of the basin's coal is making it to overseas markets by squeezing through the limited West Coast port capacity already available. But analysts and industry observers say those routes have essentially maxed out.

"Unless you can send (coal) by Federal Express, the export market can't take off," said Montana's former governor, Brian Schweitzer.

The Democrat spent two terms seeking to bolster the state's coal industry before leaving office this month. He predicted it will take up to five years for ports in Washington state and Oregon to come to fruition, and just as long for U.S. coal demand to rebound.

That leaves Cooley and others like him stuck between tomorrow's promise and yesterday's boom, in a region with few comparable employment prospects.

"I've never been laid off. Always had a job, since I was 14," said Cooley, whose family will rely on his wife's income as a grocery store cashier until he finds a new job.

As with other laid-off Decker miners interviewed, Cooley hopes Decker rebounds but is looking beyond coal as he searches for new work. He's got applications in at a zinc mine in Alaska, a gold mine in Nevada and to work as a roustabout for an oil company in North Dakota's Bakken oil patch.

Others already have moved on to such places after finding it impossible to match their former wages in Sheridan, a town of 18,000 a short drive across the Montana line from the Decker mine and where most of its workers live.

Hard times have visited before in this part of Wyoming, where coal was euphemistically dubbed "the black diamond" after a boom early last century.

North of Sheridan along the Tongue River can be seen the ruins of now-defunct company-owned coal mining towns such as Monarch, Kleenburn and Acme. Those communities and their underground mines peaked in the 1920s. Their decline left a gap in the economy that wasn't replaced until Decker and other strip mines came along decades later.

After opening in 1972, Decker quickly ramped up to several hundred workers digging up 10 million tons of coal a year, a volume that it produced for its first two decades "like clockwork," said Hal Kansala, who has been working at the mine since 1979. Coal production this year will be less than a third that amount.

Ambre spokeswoman Liz Fuller said the mine remains viable and the company is seeking buyers for its coal. She would not comment on long-term employment prospects except to say the company would look to rehire laid off workers if mining rebounds.

Regardless of whether the company's export aspirations come to pass, the short-term outlook looks grim.

The five to ten years it could take to surmount environmental opposition to West Coast coal ports is simply too long for miners and their families to wait, Sheridan Mayor Dave Kinskey said.

"It reminds me of that old saw: The first economist says, 'Well, in the long run these things all work themselves out.' And the other economist says, 'In the short term, we're dead."