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Wyoming filmmaker looks at plan to use nukes in fracking

in Community/Energy/News
Atomic Fracking in Wyoming
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By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

A Wyoming filmmaker will soon share the results of several years of document research and interviews to tell a story many people have never even heard of—atomic fracking.

Greg Asay’s documentary “Atomic Fracking in Wyoming: The Story of Project Wagon Wheel” is a visual exploration into a slice of Wyoming history often forgotten. It will air on Wyoming PBS on Nov. 19.

Asay originally learned about Project Wagon Wheel while he attended law school. It was the story of how atomic fracking was nearly put into practice in Wyoming, and it ignited his interest.

After law school, while working in Cheyenne, Asay found time to go to Laramie to explore the forgotten history of atomic fracking in the state.

He spent about two years rifling through various boxes in the American Heritage Center searching for anything that gave him clues, examining thousands of historic documents.

“The whole thing was so gradual,” Asay said. “I just kept getting a little bit more and then, a little bit more.”

He eventually discovered about 2,000 photos and a slew of documents. He journaled his findings. As much as he enjoyed the process, there were times when he had to take breaks—up to months. But he always went back. 

Eventually, after nearly exhausting his search, he stumbled upon the last box that would hold the cornerstone of his video—eight original audio interviews of people directly involved with the project recorded by writer Chip Rawlins. These cassettes would begin to tell the story of atomic fracking in Wyoming.

After World War II, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission explored peaceful and useful ways to expand the use of nuclear energy in the United States. In cooperation with El Paso Natural Gas Company, the commission used nuclear explosives to extract natural gas from sandstone formations at test sites in New Mexico and Colorado in the 1960s and ‘70s, Asay said. These tests were to play a large role in the company’s gas extraction future.

When El Paso Natural Gas wanted to conduct tests 19 miles south of Big Piney at the Wagon Wheel site, some community members held a meeting to discuss the project and learn more. The town hall meeting drew about 1,000 people to the town with just a few more than 500 residents.

Some of the residents assumed if the government was part of the project, it was probably safe; but some community members weren’t so trusting, said Ann Chambers Noble.

Noble is a historian who included a chapter about Project Wagon Wheel in her book “Pinedale, Wyoming: A Centennial History, 1904-2004.” Not only has she researched the topic in-depth, but she also remembers first-hand how the town had concerns for the nuclear fracking. In her middle school years, while the project was under consideration, she and her family would spend summers in Pinedale. She noted area residents were curious as to what atomic fracking would truly mean to them.

In 1971, locals formed an exploratory group called the Wagon Wheel Information Committee to learn more about how the El Paso Natural Gas Company would extract the gas. The committee was comprised of non-experts, such as ranchers, looking to understand more about the process, Asay said. 

After learning more about the project, members the committee began to feel uneasy about it. By 1972, area residents opposed the project by a 2-to-1 margin as tallied by a local straw poll, according to Asay.

Eventually, the controversy and delays caused by the committee’s work quelled support for the project.

Asay kept researching the committee’s journey and how members helped stop a potentially dangerous practice in their community. His narrative, actually the community’s narrative, began to take its first crude form. During the process, Asay found Noble’s book and contacted her.

Noble said she wasn’t sure what to think of his inquiry at first.

“You get a lot of these random emails as a historian,” she said. “and Greg sent me a cold email.”

At first she didn’t think much of it, but Noble said she began corresponding with him. It wasn’t until she realized Asay fully grasped the significance of the committee that she began to take him seriously. She shared with him photos and stories, which became part of the final version. Eventually, Asay shared his first rough cut of the video with her — nearly two and one-half hours, he said.

Noble reviewed a draft of the film and gave feedback to Asay. She said he really tried to achieve a correct depiction of the community and include subtle but accurate details. He wanted his film to be the community’s story.

“I love what he did,” Noble said. “I feel he really captured the story.”

Asay said he went through a couple of edits before finally polishing the 60-minute product that will soon air on PBS.

The story has become a part of Asay, One that he is compelled to share even on the road.

“There’s a turnoff near Pinedale,” Asay said. “I always point to it.”

Atomic Fracking in Wyoming: The Story of Project Wagon Wheel” airs on Wyoming PBS Nov. 19.

Hits to coal prompt leaders to look elsewhere for development

in Economic development/Energy/News
As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.
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By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.

Many people watching renewable energy expect it to eliminate the need for coal, but they are often not thinking out of the box, according one state representative.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said people are often neglecting coal’s future possibilities. Greear is co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. He said the state has many developments it is exploring that still involve coal.

Greear said the University of Wyoming is continuing research on carbon capture sequestration and the utilization of the C02 for enhanced oil recovery. He visited the Petra Nova carbon capture and sequestration facility in Houston and believes Wyoming facilities would be great candidates for the same technology.

The Petra Nova facility is currently the only existing American coal-fired power plant using the carbon recapture technology, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The facility captures the C02 from the plant, liquifies it, and then injects it into oil fields. 

The process causes oil to swell, increasing the oil recovery volume. The process has reduced C02 total emissions at the Petra Nova facility by 33 percent.

Rob Godby, director for the UW’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, said the state is actively helping develop new products for coal to maintain tax revenues. He said once promising technologies become developed, companies are more willing to adopt them. 

He pointed as an example to pipelines in Wyoming delivering C02 from natural sources to enhanced oil recovery operations. If C02 captured from coal-fired plants could be sold, the revenue could offset the overall cost of coal-generated electricity and make it more competitive with natural gas. 

Not a coal problem

However, if the state continues to focus only on coal as a large revenue source, leaders may be missing other great possibilities, according to one person working directly with growing businesses.

Fred Schmechel, assistant director of the Wyoming Technology Business Center, works at the UW in a program that helps businesses grow with a goal of bringing more revenue to the state and employing residents. So when state revenues decline, he sees the results directly in his workplace. Yet, he cautions everyone who considers this a “coal problem.”  

“Wyoming doesn’t have a coal problem,” Schmechel said. “Wyoming has a revenue problem. When we reframe it like that and figure out how we pay for our services, that opens up much broader funnel of possibilities.”

 Schmechel sees diversification of the economy and expansion of revenue streams as vital to the future growth of the state.

“If we keep trying to sell to the same 10 people, none of us are going to get rich, but if we broaden our scope and sell beyond our borders, bring that cash here, that’s where we increase our lot,” Schmechel said.

Schmechel said if wages increase, people can pay more for services and make the state less dependent on coal revenue. He also suggested that getting businesses to use services based in the Cowboy State can help expand revenue streams. 

“If we continue to focus on developing companies that solve problems outside of Wyoming and bring more revenue in, that ultimately brings more cash on hand to play with,” he said.

Greear also thinks the state needs to explore alternatives to coal, but bringing new business to Wyoming is easier said than done.

Severance taxes or bust

“We are going to still be mineral reliant in this state so long as we hold onto our current tax policy,” Greear said. 

He added he does not see the tax policy changing, but that he believes a policy change is needed. 

Change, however, would alter the dynamic and culture of the state. That places Greear at odds with some of his constituents who simply aren’t ready for change. As an elected official, Greear said he must listen to them.   

“Most people understand the changes with society,” Greear said. 

He added it is easier to push those concepts in towns like Laramie and Cheyenne because of their proximity to Fort Collins and Denver, but such changes might not fly in a town like Worland. 

Towns are also dependent on larger populations to attract and sustain more tech and business, leaving smaller towns out of the mix. It also makes it unrealistic to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the issue, he said.

Holding out for the youth

Schmechel also said he wants to keep young people in the state and create jobs for them so they can to “plant their roots” for future generations.

Schmechel sees economic diversification and development as a way to expand a town’s culture, not diminish it.

“There are lots of people who look at anything that we are doing like this and assume we are losing our culture of Wyoming, and I think those people are mistaken,” Schmechel said.

“We don’t have to be Boulder or San Francisco. We are never going to be those communities. We have found in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, where we have our three incubators for the WTBC, that each of those communities bring on their own feel.” 

As those communities grow and develop, their core values are moved forward, growing and strengthening their existing culture.

Godby also sees the need for diversification as necessity to independence.

“Do we need to diversify more, yeah,” Godby said. “The problem is when you rely on energy, you are going to be bound by energy cycles that are out of your control and typically driven by things outside of your state.”

The Blackjewel effect

Rick Mansheim, manager of state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has watched the Blackjewel layoffs from the front row. He has a lot of conversations with the workers and businesses around the state. He also believes Wyoming needs more jobs outside of energy.

“The key is diversification,” Mansheim said. “We need to broaden our scope.” 

He believes internships and early career path exposure is key to getting young workers involved in that effort.

Greear believes economic development around the state is productive, but often suffers from growing pains.

“There are some really good economic development organizations within communities,” Greear said. “But it’s kind of the hand your dealt. Cheyenne is going get a lot more looks at things you are not going to get in Worland.”

 He added that state leaders sort of had tunnel vision attracting specific types of businesses that were not fits for every community. 

“What is going to work in Cheyenne is not going to work in the Big Horn Basin,” Greear said. 

ENDOW’s impact across industries

But he believes creative ideas are still important. He cited the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming — ENDOW — initiative as helping leaders think outside of the box. 

ENDOW was created in 2016 to diversify and expand the state economy.  Greear said ENDOW challenged people to think outside of the box and pursue opportunities such as value-added agriculture, which is changing a product to enhance its value through niche marketing, uniqueness or improving a supply chain.

Schmechel, whose organization assists many businesses with incubator programs and creative solutions, sees both existing and new economic sectors as exciting opportunities for business growth.

He added Wyoming’s vast spaces would be great for autonomous vehicles and drones. In addition, he suggested exploring UW’s cache of intellectual property for application in industries such as agriculture and making sure it is being used correctly.

He said the state’s agriculture community is doing great things and should be expanded upon.

Trade sector could use displaced coal miners, officials say

in Economic development/Energy/News
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By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

Business and government leaders around the Wyoming are scrambling to make sure Wyoming workers remain Wyoming workers as the jobs in the coal industry subside.

In 2016, nearly 7 percent of the state workforce was employed in the extractive energy sector, which includes coal, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. But with Blackjewel’s recent layoff of nearly 600 people, the state will feel the shockwaves on multiple fronts. The immediate issue is figuring out how to re-employ displaced workers. The good news is skilled trade workers are in more demand than many may think, according to some officials around the state.

Rick Mansheim, manager for state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has been in the front lines of trying to get the miners back to work. He said he has heard that more than 100 miners may have found new jobs, but his organization has no way to know the exact number.

“We have a whole gamut of training we can do,” Mansheim said. 

He said that some of the Blackjewel employees are taking commercial driver’s license and other college classes. He added that in the past, his offices have also been able to help people into the nursing and welding fields.

After Blackjewel’s two mines closed, the Gillette and Newcastle Workforce Centers held information sessions at the Gillette College Technical Education Center that attracted more than 300 people from the mines. The centers also held career fairs with employers from the region that attracted nearly 500 job seekers.

Help wanted in the trades

Mansheim said many companies heard of the layoffs and reached out to him directly looking to fill the void of trade workers.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Gillette, said the state needs more trade workers. Greear is the co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee and also the president and CEO of Wyoming Sugar.

As a CEO, Greear said he cannot recruit skilled workers. They just aren’t there. So he must develop and continuously look for them. He said he has heard similar stories from other businesses in the state.

“I think it is an unintended consequence of the Hathaway (scholarship) program, which is a wonderful program,” Greear said.

He said many young people have chosen to pursue a college education rather than enter the trade sector.

As a company president, he is soliciting high school students and offering them trade jobs with possible future opportunities that include welding or machinist certifications for those who would like to remain in their communities.

But he can only do so much as a business leader. As a state leader, he is also limited.

“The Legislature can do good things—it can set policy, it can help guide us over some bumpy roads, but in the end, it’s got to be up to the industry to be able to attract them,” Greear said. “The government can’t do everything for everyone.”

The disappearing coal job

For those workers who want to remain in their communities, finding coal jobs is going to be more difficult as the industry slows and transforms.

Economist Rob Godby, director for the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, doesn’t see coal magically rebounding anytime soon because technology and the free market will naturally reduce coal’s demand.

“Coal is in real decline,” Godby said. “The (Blackjewel) bankruptcy this summer has demonstrated how disruptive that can be.”

Godby said he expects renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to become the dominant providers of energy in the future because of policy changes with climate change and technological advances that make renewable energy production more efficient.

Greear acknowledged renewables are part of an overall portfolio for energy, but they are often erroneously blamed for the decreasing coal demand.

“The real driver of coal moving out of being the more attractive option is low natural gas prices—plain and simple,” Greear said. 

He added that as coal’s share of energy production has declined, the share provided by renewable energy has increased. But renewables have revealed some reliability issues, according to Greear, so he sees natural gas as a more stable source of energy.

Godby said technology is to blame for cheaper natural gas, which he calls “the largest factor to coal’s decline.”

In addition, Godby said technological advances in natural gas production and renewable energy production have caused coal to lose its market share prominence. The impact will not likely reverse, he said.

“You can’t put those technologies back…you can’t put those genies in a bottle,” Godby said. “Once they are invented, they are really hard to forget. Technological progress happens all the time. It’s disruptive, and old technologies are replaced by new ones.

“Nobody’s building the coal-fired power plants,” Godby continued. “So eventually they are going to age out, be retired. And they are not being replaced with other coal-fired power plants.” 

Diminished local dollars from coal

Fewer coal-fired plants mean less revenue for the state and towns.

Coal production in Wyoming has declined 22.6 percent in last five years, 29.7 percent in last the 10 years, and 34.8 percent since its booming peak of 2008, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.

Coal is the second largest source of tax revenue to state and local governments, according to the WMA, with about $1 billion in tax revenue paid every year.

But the reality is that coal may not always be able to pay the bulk of the government’s bills—at least not in its current state.

Greear said state and local governments have some time to prepare for a downturn in revenues.

While coal-fired plants are shutting down, supply projections suggest production of 240 million to 260 million tons for the next 10 years.

Although Greear expects a slow, steady decline in production, he doesn’t count coal out of Wyoming’s revenue stream entirely.

Greear said there is demand for Powder River Basin coal among some Asian countries. However, efforts to build coal terminals in Washington that would allow shipments to Asian countries have failed.

Godby said even if the terminals were built, they wouldn’t likely be a long-term solution to the coal industry’s woes and may just prolong its demise.

He added even though a prolonged death may still be economically beneficial to the state in the short-term basis, the long-term outlook may not be positive.

“It’s far from guaranteed that the developing world is going to stick to coal for quite a while,” Godby said. “It is also the case that countries like China and others are turning to renewables and natural gas much more quickly than people expected.”

Subcommittee collects facts on nuclear waste storage

in Energy/News
Nuke Hearing
1973

By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily

A legislative subcommittee formed to examine the possibility of storing spent nuclear fuel rods in the state is just collecting facts on the issue so far, its chairman said Thursday.

Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, chairman of the Legislature’s Spent Fuel Rods Subcommittee, told listeners at the group’s first meeting in Casper that the committee would offer no opinions on whether nuclear waste should be stored in the state.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Spent Fuel Rods Subcommittee in Casper (photo credit: Tim Mandese).

During the hearing, committee members heard from members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy and a retired nuclear physicist.

The committee’s questions focused on the type of waste to be stored, containment, storage, transportation and location requirements as well as the permitting process. Safety concerns and risk assessments were also discussed.

Nuclear waste can take many forms, and come from many sources. Sources of waste include material from commercial power plants and non-power reactors as well as waste from medical, industrial, and academic uses of radioactive material. The primary focus of the meeting was on one type of waste, spent fuel rods used in nuclear power plants.

Spent fuel rods contain nuclear fuel that has reached the end of its useful life. Such fuel is physically hot and contains ionizing radiation and is held in a containment vessel or “cask”. The casks are made of several inches of lead or depleted uranium (which is not radioactive) sandwiched between inner and outer layers of concrete, to provide gamma ray shielding that reduces the radiation emitted to levels just above normal background radiation. The federal government is looking for a temporary storage spot for the waste pending congressional funding for completion of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada.

Under consideration for Wyoming is an above-ground “Monitored Retrievable Storage facility,” or MRS that would hold a maximum of 10,000 metric tons of waste.

Currently, no applications for site permits have submitted, so no specific sites have been determined. Recommended locations for MRS sites would be near a rail spur and away from populated areas.

Mike Layton, director of the NRC’s Division of Spent Fuel Management, said waste would be transported by truck and rail in the casks, which are built to withstand drops onto hard surfaces, punctures, fire and water immersion.

According to the NRC, no casks have leaked in over 40 years of transporting nuclear waste.

Before a storage site can be approved, a lengthy permitting process — sometimes taking up to nine years — is completed by the NRC, said John McKirgan, chief of the NRC’s Spent Fuel Licensing branch.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Spent Fuel Rods Subcommittee in Casper (photo credit: Tim Mandese).

The process begins with the prospective licensees making a deposit of $800,000, according to the agency, and examines scenarios including earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

Pete Davis, a retired nuclear physicist who conducted a study into the impacts of a breech of the Yucca Mountain containment facility, told committee members the only scenario that would result in a leak of nuclear material would be the intentional crash of a commercial aircraft into the facility.

Parts of the aircraft engine and landing struts were found sufficient to penetrate the waste handling building during a crash, Davis said.

The study concluded that in such a disaster, 42 spent fuel assemblies would be impacted and all rods ruptured. All fuel pellets would be converted to powder by the resulting fire and 12 percent of the powder would be released into the atmosphere. The scenario also assumes the winds blowing to highest population sector or 100,000 people. The study concluded that about six latent cancer fatalities would occur as a direct result of such an accident, along with a 0.03 percent increase in cancer fatalities for the exposed population.

A big dam deal: Buffalo Bill Dam expansion celebrated

in Agriculture/Energy/News/Recreation
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By Cowboy State Daily

The anniversary of the completion of one of Wyoming’s most impressive engineering feats was celebrated recently as Cody marked the 25th anniversary of the expansion of Buffalo Bill Dam.

The $132 million expansion project launched in 1985 raised the dam’s height from 325 feet to 350, increasing its storage capacity by 260,000 acre-feet.

The “Great Dam Day” on Aug. 17 celebrated the completion of the project with a number of activities that gave visitors a chance to stop by the dam and its visitor’s center.

Among the attendees was Bill McCormick, who served as the project manager for the expansion.

McCormick said one of the most challenging parts of the job was removing a large section of a mountain to allow for the expansion.

Project officials soon figured out that rock from the mountain could be used as “riprap” to line the reservoir’s shoreline, he said, eliminating the need to bring in the material from elsewhere.

“So it seemed very logical,” he said. “We had good granite right here and (workers could) take the rock from here.”

While the project was originally supposed to be completed in five years, various developments delayed completion, McCormick said.

“The estimated five years for the project actually took 11 as things were modified or problems came up or the design changed,” he said.

The dam today provides irrigation water for more than 90,000 acres of land in the Big Horn Basin, along with a 6-mile long reservoir that serves as a recreation area.

Now a Ban on Natural Gas? Berkeley, California Fires “First Shot” in Potential Energy War

in Energy/News
Berkeley bans natural gas
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Californians are moving away from natural gas, which could complicate Wyoming’s energy-reliant economy in the future, but experts say it’s too soon to predict an actual impact. In Berkeley, California, city officials banned natural gas connections to new homes to fuel furnaces and appliances starting in 2020 as part of an initiative to reduce the city’s carbon emissions.

Wyoming Petroleum Association President Pete Obermueller said the move could be troubling if it gains momentum, but it’s not alarming at this point.

“Obviously, if it is large scale and mandated and very widespread that would be detrimental,” Obermueller said. “I’m a little bit skeptical anything like that will happen quickly or on a large scale.”

At the University of Wyoming, Charles Mason, a professor of Petroleum and Natural Gas Economics who was raised in Berkeley, said the city’s decision was more symbolic than impactful.

“You could kind of think of it as the first shot in a war,” Mason added.

If the rest of California were to fall in line with Berkeley, Wyoming’s gas industry might not feel a pinch immediately, but could see reduced demands for gas in the future, said Severin Borenstein, faculty director for the Energy Institute at the University of California-Berkley’s Haas School of Business.

“This is not going to happen overnight,” Borenstein said. “Even the Berkeley law, which is way ahead of California, is only on new houses.”

While gas burns cleaner than coal, it still generates greenhouse gasses. 

“Presumably, reducing emissions is the thing that is top of mind (in Berkeley),” Mason said. “Gas is cleaner, but it’s not zero.”

The majority of California’s in-state electricity is generated by natural gas, although it’s closely followed by renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, the California Energy Commission reports.

Gas burned in homes for appliances and heating creates more emissions than all the state’s power plants, California Energy Commission Chairman David Hochschild told the San Francisco Chronicle.

“It’s not that (homes) are more polluting,” Borenstein said. “But, there’s a lot of it. Most buildings in California are heated with the on-site combustion of natural gas.”

In 2018, the city of Berkeley reported 27 percent of its total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 were generated by the ignition of natural gas within city buildings.

For Mason, the potential reduction of gas-fueled heating sources is notable.

“Heating is a lot bigger deal,” he said. “You could possibly see a measurable impact if this takes root and they convince a big chunk of California to follow suit.”

The gas wells currently operating in Wyoming “are pretty price insensitive” and unlikely to be affected by Berkeley’s decision, Mason said. However, if California or other states start requiring buildings to use non-gas heating sources, he said potentially reduced gas prices could affect Wyoming.

“Where a change in prices will matter is a reduction in new drills,” he explained.

Fewer drills could mean fewer jobs for Wyomingites. The oil and gas industry accounted for 12,600 Wyoming jobs in June, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

If those jobs were to disappear, Mason said Wyoming workers would need to adapt.

“It’s not radically different than the situation facing coal miners,” he explained. “They may just have to find something new to do — maybe building wind turbines or working at Walmart.”

While some believe a move away from gas is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Obermueller said the U.S. relies heavily on the industry for electricity generation, and that’s not likely to change.

“Natural gas is the primary source in America of large scale electricity production,” he said. “The demand for energy is growing by leaps and bounds. There’s no doubt that (natural gas’) share of electricity is rising rapidly.”

Wind turbine blades being disposed of in Casper landfill

in Energy/News
Decommissioned windmill blades
Windmill fan blades and motor housing components wait for disposal at the Casper Regional Landfill. Some 1,000 pieces from decommissioned wind turbines will be disposed of at the CRL by 2020, bringing an estimated $675,485 in new revenue to the landfill. (Photo courtesy of the Casper Regional Landfill staff)
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By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily 

The Casper landfill will soon be the home of more than 1,000 decommissioned wind turbine blades and motor housing units. 

According to Cindie Langston, solid waste manager for the Casper Regional Landfill, the materials will be deposited in an area of the landfill designed to hold construction and demolition material. 

CRL is one of the few landfills with the proper permits and certifications to accept the decommissioned turbine materials. 

The turbine disposal project, which started this summer, is slated to continue until the spring of 2020, bringing the CRL estimated revenue of $675,485. Such “special waste projects” bring in about $800,000 a year, which helps keep CRL rates low, Langston said.

The wind turbine components are being delivered by InStream Environmental, a company that recycles and disposes of other companies’ waste streams. The company is retrieving the blades from two different wind farm locations.

Each turbine blade will need between 30 and 44.8 cubic yards of landfill space, using a total of 448,000 cubic yards of the 2.6 million yards set aside for construction and demolition material. The components are made of a fiberglass material that is one of the most inert, non-toxic materials accepted at CRL, Langston said. 

The average lifespan of a wind turbine is 20 to 25 years, and wind farms repurpose and recycle 90 percent of the materials in a wind turbine unit. The only materials not recycled are the fiberglass blades and motor housings. Nationwide, there are nearly 50,000 wind turbines, with 2,700 being decommissioned since the energy boom of the 1970s. 

Researchers at Washington State University are looking for ways to reuse the fiberglass components of aged-out turbines, but no practical commercial applications have yet been found. There is some hope that ground up blades can be used to create building materials, among other things.

To prevent acres of abandoned and decaying wind farms, Wyoming laws require companies provide bonds to cover the cost of decommissioning and disposal of turbines once they are taken out of service or abandoned.

Blackjewel closures bad, but not the worst, officials say

in Energy/News
Gillette Wyoming coal
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By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

GILLETTE – It’s been nearly a month since Blackjewel LLC abruptly shuttered its coal production operations, locking some 600 Gillette-area miners out of the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines. And as Blackjewel continues to hammer out its fate in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Gillette searches for silver linings to this latest economic cumulonimbus.

For as threatening as the Blackjewel storm cloud may be, the city has seen worse; and not all that long ago, either. Mayor Louise Carter-King said that during the Peabody Energy and Arch Coal bankruptcy proceedings in 2016, oil and natural gas prices were also bottoming out, leaving displaced energy sector workers with few places to turn locally for employment.

“Three years ago oil was down, natural gas was down, coal was down. It was like a perfect storm and it hit us very hard,” Carter-King said. “This time it was more due to (Blackjewel’s) mismanagement rather than the underlying economy, because both of these mines were profitable.”

While she expects the mine layoffs to have a ripple effect on the city’s sales tax revenues, it will be some time before that impact is seen because state remittance of sales taxes are backdated by two months. But Carter-King said she doesn’t expect any impact to be especially long-lived this time around, thanks to a stronger job market that’s provided fall-back opportunities for those who can’t afford to wait for the mines to reopen.

“I know some employees are holding out for that, but those who can get jobs that are equal or better are jumping ship,” she said. “The good news is, a lot of people have been able to find jobs.”

Rick Mansheim with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services said the DWS Employment and Training office in Gillette took immediate steps to get information out about resources available to the displaced miners, as well as to address some of their most urgent economic questions. In addition, DWS called upon its community and statewide partners to swiftly assemble a job fair that brought in employers from across Wyoming and the Mountain West.

“Five days after the (mine) closings, we had a big job fair at Gillette College where we had 40 employers, not just local, but from Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Montana,” Mansheim said. “They saw over 450 people in one day; and I know a good percentage of people were actually offered jobs that day. So if there’s a bright side at all to this layoff or whatever you want to term it, it’s the fact there were jobs available and a lot of these people were able to find employment relatively quickly.”

For the rest, Mansheim said DWS has been helping walk people through applying for unemployment benefits and ensuring they know how to maintain their health insurance coverage.

“A lot of these people have never gone through something like this, so we’re helping them understand the unemployment process – because it is a process, it’s not something where you just come in, type in your name and that’s it,” Mansheim said. “We’ll probably do another job fair if we hear something about whether the mines are going to be bringing people back or not, and we keep in contact with the city and the county to make sure we’re on the same page.”

City Communications Manager Geno Palazzari said Gillette has also been working with nonprofits and social service agencies to marshal assistance in the aftermath of the mine closures. One of the first calls, he said, was to the Food Bank of the Rockies to enlist the aid of that group’s mobile food pantry, which will set up at Family Life Church, 480 S. Highway 50, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. July 29 and Aug. 19.

“They’re already mobilizing to get trucks up here,” Palazzari said. “We’ve also reached out to some of the social service agencies in the community we fund … to make sure they didn’t need an advance on the funding we provide them to make sure they can make it through these times.”

While Blackjewel has been an important contributor to the city’s tax revenue base, Palazzari and Carter-King said they don’t expect these latest closures to impact city services. That’s mainly because the city has been extremely conservative with its spending since the 2016 downturn, when it had to cut nearly four dozen positions and $60 million out of its budget.

“Those were tough days. We had to lay off people and we looked at everything with a microscope,” Carter-King said. “Three years ago woke us up and taught us that we’ve got to be prepared for things like this.”

Prior to 2016, the city had enough cash in reserve to keep things running for 90 days without any new revenues. In 2016, the city council voted to increase that to 120 days, and then to 150 days in September 2018.

“There’s approximately $14 million (of operating reserves) budgeted for Fiscal Year 2020,” Carter-King said. “Now, if not another dime came into this city, we could make it 150 days.”

Miners face uncertainty of changing coal markets

in Energy/News
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Miners left without jobs with the closure of two of Campbell County’s biggest coal mines are facing a changing reality in the nature of the coal industry, Gillette residents agree.

Residents said although the coal industry has traditionally been a stable source of income and employment, the dropping demand for coal has changed that.

“The coal jobs have historically been the stable jobs,” said Alison Gee, a Gillette attorney. “Now we’re shifting to an environment where we have to look to oil and gas to try and provide some of the stability for our families. And as you know, the oil and gas markets just aren’t that way. They’re very volatile because of the world economy.”

About 600 miners lost their jobs several weeks ago when Blackjewel closed the Belle Ayre and Eagle Butte mines. Efforts are being made to secure funding to return the mines to operation.

If those efforts fail, many of those who lost their jobs will probably leave the community, predicted Ken Anthony, a retired miner.

“You’ve got two to three kids at home and you’ve got a big old house payment and car payment and all of a sudden that stops,” he said. “It’s pretty scary. When they lose their jobs, it really makes a big effect on the whole county. If they can get the money and re-open (the mines), it will be fine. If they can’t, more than likely, most of (the miners) will leave.”

Gee noted that while some companies are offering jobs to Blackjewel’s former miners, most do not have the resources to offer the same level of salaries or benefits.

Tom Lubnau, a former speaker for Wyoming’s House of Representatives, said the mine closures show the state needs to work to offset the diminishing demand for coal.

“We have to, in some way, take control of our own destiny,” he said. “If we can boost the market in a certain way, develop the technologies that we need to use to market our resources, then we should do that.”

In the meantime, Gillette’s residents are doing what they can to ease the burden on the unemployed miners, said Trey McConnell, manager at the Railyard Restaurant.

“The people here, in bad times they bond together, they help one another out,” he said. “It’s one of these areas where you can kind of rely on your brothers and sisters. It’s just a very tight-knit community.”

Blackjewel layoffs could have ‘truly scary’ impact on economy

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Belle Aye Mine
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With two of Wyoming’s largest coal mines closed pending Blackjewel LLC’s bankruptcy filings and approximately 600 laid-off workers warming the bench, legislators and state economists are contemplating the future of coal in Wyoming.

“Just because a coal mine stops producing doesn’t mean the demand for coal stops,” said Dan Noble, Wyoming Department of Revenue’s director. “Because most coal-fired power plants use Powder River Basin coal, those coal customers may switch to the other producers in that area. At which point, there’s not a significant drop off of coal produced.”

Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, explained coal-fired power plants tune their operations to coal products from specific regions of the world.

“Another mine (in the basin) might be able to pick up (Blackjewel’s) contracts,” Case said. “While that’s a reasonable story for the tax receipts, it’s not at all good for the laid-off workers.”

As the Senate chairman of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee, he said Blackjewel’s bankruptcy was concerning, but he pointed to the larger issue: The coal industry is withering away.

“We are looking at a general reduction in production of Powder River coal,” Case said. Revenue Committee House of Representatives Chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, added coal mining in Wyoming might grind to a halt in little more than 10 years.

“The modeling used to say we’d be good until 2050,” Zwonitzer explained. “Now, the modeling is saying 2030.”

The loss would be a major hit for the state, he said.

Reviewing only severance tax, which is imposed on the extraction of non-renewable natural resources intended for use in other states, Noble said coal production generated about $211 million in revenue for Wyoming in 2017.  

“The assessed value for all minerals in the state is (about) $10 billion,” he said. “And coal represents (about) 15 percent of all of the taxable value in the state.”

Labor force impact

While coal revenue could fill the state’s coffers for another decade, the Blackjewel layoffs might significantly hinder local economies in northeastern Wyoming.

“In May, unemployment (in Campbell County where the Blackjewel mines, Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte, are located) was down to 3.2 percent, which is pretty low,” said David Bullard, a Wyoming Department of Workforce Services senior economist. “We won’t have July’s numbers for a while yet, but just talking in round numbers, it could push unemployment (in the county) up to 6 percent.”

Wyoming’s average unemployment rate was 3.3 percent in May.

Campbell County’s labor force has trended downward in recent years with about 24,600 in May 2016 dropping to about 22,700 by May 2019, Bullard said.   

“In general terms, if these 600 (Blackjewel) jobs disappear, we would expect that to have a negative affect across the local economy, and to a lesser extent, the entire state,” he said.

With about 4,000 jobs catalogued by Workforce Services, mining is one of the largest employment categories in the county, and Blackjewel’s employees accounted for about 11 percent of the sector, according to the department’s data. If the company is not able to secure more funding for its Wyoming operations, Bullard said the community could suffer.

“I expect a significant number of (the laid-off Blackjewel workers) would move away for other opportunities in other areas,” he explained. “That would impact the local economy by lowering demand for services and retail as well as tax revenue for governments and schools.”

More than three decades ago, U.S. Steel closed its iron mine in central Wyoming, but Case said the memory is still fresh.

“I’ve been through it in Lander, and when the mine shut down, we lost 550 good-paying jobs,” he recalled. “It is a killer — these are good jobs. You got $70,000 (a year) household incomes coming out of those mines. That money is in those communities. It’s scary. It’s truly scary.”

The future

As coal revenue wanes, legislators are reviewing options to keep the state afloat.

“It’s revenue that Wyoming has depended on for over 100 years,” Zwonitzer said. “With that gone — it’s a sizable chunk of the budget. There’s a lot of concern in the revenue committee.” 

Increasing taxes on wind and solar energy is one possible avenue, but Zwonitzer said even the best estimates of potential revenue from renewable energy don’t come close to covering the gap left by coal.

“I think our two main options right now are a corporate income tax or a significant increase in property tax,” he added. “They may not be two good options, but they are the two palatable options right now.”

Case said some are looking to the oil and natural gas industries for answers.

“I’m just asking the question: what if oil were to go the same route?” Case posited. “We need to find a way to find long-term revenue for our state, our schools and our roads.”

As the era of coal-fired power plants nears its end, Zwonitzer said the revenue committee will continue to research ways of lessening the blow to Wyoming’s economy. But for now, the future is bleak.

“There’s no good news ahead,” Zwonitzer said. “It just keeps getting worse.”

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