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As The Energy Market Changes, Another Coal Company Declares Bankruptcy


So as we just heard, the coal industry is under pressure. But it was still a shock Monday when one of the country's largest coal companies, Blackjewel, declared bankruptcy. The jobs of hundreds of people in Wyoming and Appalachia are now at risk. Wyoming's Powder River Basin produces the bulk of the nation's coal, but many are now bracing for what could be the first coal mines to close there.

Reporter Cooper McKim of Wyoming Public Media joins us now to talk about this. And Cooper, I know that there's been a string of other coal bankruptcies in recent years, but those companies have managed to keep operating. So what's different this time?

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: Right. So yeah. This is the third bankruptcy in Wyoming just since October. In other cases, the filings came down to bad bets and bad management. But the problem here is more fundamental - electricity from coal is just down, dramatically. A few months ago, it hit its lowest point in nearly 50 years. I've been talking a lot with Clark Williams-Derry. He's an energy analyst with the Sightline Institute.

CLARK WILLIAMS-DERRY: Natural gas and renewables are getting so cheap that coal just can't compete, and that's cut into demand for coal. And so it's a real wake up call for the Powder River Basin because there are other mines that are similarly situated to Blackjewel's mines, that they're in financial trouble, too. It just maybe hasn't hit the level that Blackjewel has.

MCKIM: Williams-Derry has told me Blackjewel has almost no money in the bank - just a little over $100,000 - but well over $200 million in debt. So while other coal companies kept their employees working - that's more normal - and mines running through bankruptcy, Blackjewel is in such bad shape, it just couldn't swing that.

CORNISH: So how did that play out for the workers?

MCKIM: So just a few hours after the company entered bankruptcy on Monday morning, managers told about 600 people at both the mines here that everyone had to go home. They were escorted out. So they didn't know if they were laid off or just off for the day; they were stuck in limbo. A shovel operator, J.D. Dietche (ph), said he hasn't been able to sleep since Monday - he owns a house up there - and says he's not only looking for jobs in the area, but now he has to look all over the country.

JD DIETCHE: I know a lot of people in the community are - they think coal miners make really good jobs, and they should have saved all that money and put it away. But the facts are a lot of coal miners are one-income families. So they live paycheck to paycheck, just like everybody else out there.

MCKIM: Most everyone is really confused right now. Their paychecks are bouncing; that's a huge deal. Some people aren't seeing money go into their 401(k)s. There's just a lot of frustration.

CORNISH: Is there any kind of safety net, any kind of offers of help right now for these workers?

MCKIM: Well, Wyoming's governor and a few state agencies held a press conference in Gillette earlier this week. A lot of workers were obviously very upset and had questions. The Department of Workforce Services here said folks were lining up by the hundreds outside their doors. They were offering help with resumes and job opportunities. But people in the local community of Gillette are really helping each other out. It's been really cool to see. There's this big Facebook group of Blackjewel employees, full of posts with offers of free lunch, cheaper medical care, all these job openings. It was started by a production technician at one of the mines named Rory Wallet.

RORY WALLET: It doesn't matter if it's a couple pounds of hamburger to gift to somebody. A couple hundred dollars donated to - for the example, there's a local bar and grill, so that somebody can go in and decompress with a beer. Take their family down to the local ice-cream parlor and have an ice cream.

MCKIM: Yeah, Wallet's here trying to keep his spirits up but says he's also looking for other jobs.

CORNISH: Cooper, the president has been saying for years that he'd save the coal industry. He's rolled back a lot of policies in order to advocate for the industry. Is there frustration that this doesn't seem to be making much of a difference?

MCKIM: So whoever makes them (ph) policies kind of aren't relevant when you're talking about the market here. Renewable energy and natural gas are just cheaper now than coal, and that gives utilities a pretty simple choice. President Trump has talked about subsidizing the industry for years but hasn't been able to make that happen. Look - I mean, the president is certainly - he's very popular here. But when I talk to people, it just isn't really a topic that comes up, certainly not anymore. The judge who oversees this case, though, was nominated by President Trump for a higher position. One person in the employees' Facebook group actually mentioned that - he said, coal miners stood by Trump; hopefully the judge stands by us.

CORNISH: You've also talked about the idea of the cut in demand, and you do have states that are pledging to eventually cut all the carbon emissions that are warming the climate, including from coal. Are people in Wyoming worried that their state's coal industry may not survive?

MCKIM: Wyoming is reliant on coal; that's been the case for a very long time. A huge part of our state budget comes from royalties and taxes. People are not blind, though. So the state is talking about diversification. They're looking at something called blockchain and wind energy. We have a lot of wind here. But coal will certainly remain in the picture. The governor has pushed for more investment in carbon capture technology, hoping a breakthrough there could help keep the industry going, even as efforts ramp up to cut carbon emissions and address climate change.

CORNISH: That's Cooper McKim of Wyoming Public Media. Thank you for your reporting.

MCKIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. & THE MG'S' "WORKING IN THE COAL MINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and now Wyoming. In South Carolina, he covered recovery efforts from a devastating flood in 2015. Throughout his time, he produced breaking news segments and short features for national NPR. Cooper recently graduated from Tufts University with degrees in Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.