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Wyoming’s Carbon County knows which way the wind is blowing

 

By Dionne Searcey

© The New York Times Co.

RAWLINS, WYO. » The coal-layered underground helped bring settlers to this scrubby, windwhipped part of southern Wyoming, where generations found a steady paycheck in the mines and took pride in powering the nation.

But now, it is energy from the region’s other abundant energy resource — the wind itself — that is creating jobs and much-needed tax revenues in Carbon County.

Despite its historic ties to coal, as well as local denialism about climate change, the county is soon to be home to one of the biggest wind farms in the nation.

The United States gets only 7% of its energy from wind, far less than most experts believe will have a significant environmental effect. Resistance remains outspoken: Just last month, the politicization of wind energy was on full display as numerous Republicans and conservative pundits falsely blamed frozen wind turbines as a chief cause of widespread blackouts in Texas.

Carbon County shows how the energy transformation that America needs to make is possible, but may happen reluctantly, driven by pragmatism more than a desire to stop burning the coal and oil that release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Here, at least, it comes down to the reality that mines are closing nationwide, and buyers of coal are simply disappearing.

In Wyoming, many residents such as Terry Weickum support the coal industry and disapprove of the way the glossy turbines interrupt the emptiness of the sagebrush- spotted landscape. Nevertheless, Weickum helped bring wind energy to Carbon County, knowing it would help Rawlins — a community of 9,000 with its downtown gym, coffee shop and the Rifleman Club Bar — to avoid becoming yet another ghost town, forgotten as mining passes into history.

“You can stand at the tracks when the train is coming at you, or you can stand at the switch,” said Weickum, explaining his decisions to usher in wind during his tenure on the Carbon County Commissioners Association. “I chose to stand at the switch.”

The pandemic — which has driven down the price of coal, oil and gas — has only heightened the urgency for Wyoming to resolve an identity crisis over whether to let go of one of its richest assets: emissions-spewing fossil fuels. Officials are planning for devastating budget cuts in a state that some economists describe as suffering from a “resource curse,” a term often used for developing nations that underperform economically despite having an abundance of natural resources.

“The old joke in Wyoming is all you use to need to go coal mining is a 3-iron. People were told that coal will always be here, that these are lifetime jobs,” said Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming. “We’re at a crossing the Rubicon moment — it went from ‘It’s never going to happen’ to ‘Now it’s happening.’ ” The high-desert landscape, with vistas that stretch to the horizon, makes Wyoming one of the best spots in the nation for wind. Some of the strongest, most regular gusts in America blow down from the Rocky Mountains, so fierce that freeway signs flash with warnings of gales of more than 60 mph.

Wyoming’s ample wind will keep the blades spinning on the immense new project near Rawlins, featuring perhaps as many as 1,000 turbines. It could produce enough electricity to power about 1 million homes.

Smaller wind farms such as Ekola Flats are coming online elsewhere in Carbon County from Rocky Mountain Power, a utility that closed one coal mine and plans to close another. The company hired about 300 workers to build Ekola Flats, which will employ about 10 once it’s operational.

Wyoming’s 16 working mines still make up nearly 40% of the country’s coal production — more than three times as much as West Virginia. Wyoming, with a population of just 582,000, has abundant oil and natural gas reserves that often land it among the nation’s top 10 producers.

Wyoming’s fossil fuel industry employed about 14,900 people last year, a drop of more than 28% from the year before. Jobs in the wind industry amount to only a few hundred, state economists estimate, with most of the work available during construction of wind farms. But, unlike the coal industry, the wind sector is growing.

Wyoming’s reckoning came into sharp focus last month when President Joe Biden announced a moratorium on drilling on federal lands, where the bulk of Wyoming’s oil fields are located. Officials have said the state could lose about $300 million in annual tax revenue from a long-term ban, along with numerous jobs.

Wyoming, with its vast wind resources, has the potential to lead the country in renewables. But the clean-energy revolution espoused by Biden is not what is pushing officials here to embrace wind.

What’s driving the change is pragmatism.

At least six coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past six years, and the state’s coal mining sector last year alone lost 761 jobs.

Despite the stark economic reality of the coal industry’s decline, state officials are still trying to preserve Wyoming’s fossil fuel resources, particularly coal. The state has dedicated $15 million to creating the Wyoming Integrated Test Center to study the capture of carbon emissions from coalburning power plants. Gov. Mark Gordon talks about pitching Boeing on ideas to use Wyoming coal for carbon-fiber airplane wings or persuading auto manufacturers to use its coal for carbon-fiber vehicle bodies.

Gordon welcomes the development of renewable energy, and says he believes climate change is a threat, but also promised recently in his State of the State speech to protect coal, lamenting what he called the Biden administration’s “crazed pursuit of 100% ‘green’ energy.”

Weickum, 68, has watched the decline of coal since he moved to Rawlins four decades ago in hopes of profiting off the industry. Recently, he has felt the shift in his own printing and sign-making business that once relied on coal companies as customers. Last year, he had no business from coal, and $150,000 of business from wind companies.

Describing himself as “a crazy old man who can’t sit still for 10 minutes,” Weickum likes to emphasize that he is not “pro-wind.”

Like a number of public officials and residents in this part of the state, he also questions whether human activity is causing the climate to change, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is. “I think our climate is changing because the Earth is in a cycle,” Weickum said. “Do I agree with Al Gore? No.”

Weickum worked for months with other officials to adopt statewide standards for wind projects and to come up with a taxation structure that aimed to ensure revenue but not discourage new companies. His support for wind projects came with a political cost. He believes he lost his seat on the Carbon County Commissioners Association because of wind farms he approved when he was head of the group’s wind task force.

But the worry on most people’s minds is whether welcoming the wind industry will speed job losses in the fossil fuel industry. “They feel like wind energy is somehow in competition with coal, oil and gas,” Weickum said. “In an abstract way, it is.”

 

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