Wyoming Coal Mine Says Federal Roadblocks Forced Layoff Of 15% Of Workforce

Black Butte Coal Co. near Rock Springs, Wyoming, says continuing Biden administration roadblocks of a planned mine expansion has forced it to lay off 19 people this week, about 15% of its workforce.

Leo Wolfson

November 30, 20237 min read

A dragline moves coal at the Black Butte mine in Sweetwater County.
A dragline moves coal at the Black Butte mine in Sweetwater County. (University of Wyoming Extension via YouTube)

Nineteen coal workers in southwest Wyoming are facing unemployment as the holiday season hits full throttle.

Black Butte Coal Co., east of Rock Springs confirmed to Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that it has off 19 workers this week.

The layoffs drew the attention of Gov. Mark Gordon, U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis and Rep. Harriet Hageman, who all issued statements Wednesday blaming President Joe Biden’s anti-fossil fuel policies for the terminations.

“Today, we are unfortunately witnessing the tragic reality of President Biden’s Green New Deal agenda, and my heart breaks for the 19 Black Butte Coal Company employees losing their jobs,” Lummis said. “Their hard work keeps the lights and heat on in Wyoming during frigid winter nights and they deserve our gratitude.”

Biden has been outspoken about his conservation-based energy policies since taking office in an effort to combat climate change. The result of these policies has generally meant more regulation of, and less approval for, fossil fuel projects and leases than what was seen under former President Donald Trump’s administration.

The layoffs will reduce Black Butte’s total workforce by roughly 15%, from 132 to 113.

“It breaks my heart,” Steve Gili, the mine manager at Black Butte Coal, told Cowboy State Daily. “I still wish those 19 individuals worked here. I have nothing but empathy for them.”

How Come?

Gili said the layoffs are the result of a refusal from the Biden administration to allow the business to expand its operations with federal coal reserves.

Black Butte originally applied with the Department of the Interior and the Office of Surface Mining and Environmental Enforcement (OSMRE) around 2014 to expand its operation.

Although it received original lease approval in 2017 and a permit from the state in 2021, momentum on getting final approval to tap into the federal coal reserves and expand the mine by 963 acres stalled right around the time Biden took office.

At that time, Gili said OSMRE requested the plant get a new environmental assessment that accounted for greenhouse gasses and the carbon dioxide output within the proposed expansion area. Other additional reviews were also requested, which Gili said were delivered and approved.

Not Going To Happen Under Biden

Gili said no noticeable progress of any kind has happened in the approval process of the project since January. Two months ago, he said the plant was asked to go back and perform a new environmental impact study, a significant time and resource-intensive undertaking.

Regulatory delays like these have become commonplace for extraction industries in recent years.

Gili said Hageman made strong efforts to address the issue with OSMRE leaders on Capitol Hill, whose response verified his suspicion that the administration is purposely delaying the project and has no desire to ever approve it.

“In my opinion, there’s no other way to look at it,” he said.

Hageman condemned the layoffs Wednesday as a result of Biden’s “cruel green bad deal policies.”

“This is all part of this administration’s purposeful plan to eliminate fossil fuels, and they don’t care what damage is done to hard working families in the process,” she said.

Gordon said he brought the expansion application to the attention of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and the acting director of OSMRE in April, and talked to Haaland earlier this month when she attended the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Jackson about the possibility of layoffs.

“Let’s be clear. This is about coal,” Gordon said in his statement.

Also, Less Demand

A secondary reason for the layoffs, Gili said, is a decline in coal demand from the nearby Jim Bridger Power Plant, which the mine supplies.

Initially, Jim Bridger’s two oldest units were planned for a complete closure through Rocky Mountain Power’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan. The plan was later updated to convert the Jim Bridger plant to natural gas. According to the 2021 IRP, Units 1 and 2 at the power plant would be converted in 2023 while the 2023 IRP lists a 2030 conversion date for Units 3 and 4.

Still, Gordon said the additional coal could be used at the Jim Bridger Power Plant as part of its plan to use carbon capture and reduce overall energy prices.

“Yet, the Department of Interior prefers to lay off Wyoming workers rather than allow the mining of additional coal reserves within an already existing permit,” he said.

Gili said the 19 workers will be allowed to work until mid-December and will be offered a severance package at that time. He said most of the employees were hired by the company in the last year or so specifically in the anticipation of the expansion being approved.

Tough Timing

No matter how legitimate the reasons for the layoffs are, a mass termination executed right before the holidays never looks great.

Gili said he is aware of the optics and had discussed the issue at length with other members of his management team. Because of the mine’s business contracts running on an annual basis, the company is facing a significant drop off in coal demand for 2024, from 2 million tons a year to 1.2 million tons.

“We literally would’ve had employees standing around doing nothing,” he said. “We just don’t need them.”

After long consideration, it was decided to give employees as much notice as possible for the layoffs so they could plan their holiday spending around the knowledge they would soon be unemployed, rather than waiting until the first week of the new year to let them know.

On Wednesday, a rapid response event was held at the Department of Workforce Services office in Rock Springs for those who were laid off. Amy Souza, central manager for the office, said nine of the 19 laid off employees attended.

Mining jobs, she said, are some of the most desirable in Sweetwater County because of their high rate of pay. As inflation increases, she worries what more layoffs could do to a local economy that is highly dependent on extraction industries for jobs.

Future Outlook

State Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said layoffs like these should only be expected to continue in the future considering Biden’s environmental and energy policies.

“The reality is, we can expect more in the future because of the Biden administration’s war on coal,” he said. “It’s symbolic, if nothing else. It’s more than symbolic for the 19 families.”

Stith said he hopes the lost jobs can be replaced by growth in other industries within the energy sector.

Although coal demand has substantially dropped over the last decade in response to industry pressures and the growth of other sources of energy, there is still a high level of business for the natural resource that is the country’s third largest source of power for the energy grid.

Gili still has an overall positive outlook for the future of his industry, yet many questions remain.

“What the ton production and pricing will look like is a really good question, but we continue to see the extraction continue into the future,” he said. “Under the current administration, we expect more roadblocks to be put up against us.”

Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter