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.
“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?
Gray, the man who called CNN, doesn’t see anything fair about it.
“People are getting left behind,” he told me.
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.
Another was environmental regulation.
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.
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.
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.”
After the bust, Carter-King said she knew Gillette would have rethink everything.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Their focus should be on struggling towns like Gillette.
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.
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