Idle mines portend dark days for top US coal region

It’s a big hit to the region straddling northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, where coal has quietly supported the economies of both states for decades and fuels a shrinking number of power plants in 28 states.

The turmoil comes as U.S. coal production is down over 30 percent since peaking in 2008. Utilities are retiring aging coal-fired power plants and switching to solar, wind and cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas to generate electricity despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to prop up the coal industry.

Powder River Basin mines employ about 5,000 miners — 20 percent fewer than eight years ago. The impact is even wider because an additional 8,000 jobs, from teachers to car mechanics, have indirect ties to the coal industry.

Locals cheered when Trump lifted a federal moratorium on coal leases, but Worden and Wallet disagree about whether changing environmental regulations will do much good.

Both say coal should continue to have a place alongside renewable energy.

“It needs to be a group effort, not green is on one side and black is on the other,” Worden said. “We don’t want this community to die.”

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