How ‘the Energy Capital of the Nation’ regained its optimism in the Trump era

Source: By Robert Samuels, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, June 5, 2017

A train carrying cars full of coal cuts through Gillette, Wyo., which calls itself “the energy capital of the nation.” (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The resurrected feeling of American possibility came not from pontificating TV pundits or a radio host in a studio miles away. Optimism arrived here because of what people were seeing: the unemployment lines getting shorter and their daily commutes getting longer.

Tom Gorton, 41, drove through those increasingly congested streets in his Arnold Machinery truck late on a spring afternoon, under the watch of mountains covered in white from a spring snowstorm. As Gorton settled behind his desk, he was heartened to see how messy it was with orders, one year after hundreds of layoffs at two nearby coal mines cost him his job and delivered a gut punch to a county that produces more than a third of the nation’s energy supply.

In another room at Arnold’s, branch manager Adam Coleman fixed his eyes on statistics tracking economic trends. Electricity had flatlined. To Coleman, this was good news.

“I can’t put fully into words this feeling I’m feeling, but it is much better,” he said. “I believe the economy as a whole is going to recover, and when it does, electrical use will increase. It’s not going down, so that’s a good thing. We’ll be back.”

Adam Coleman of Arnold Machinery is reflected in a window as he works in his office. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

In Gillette and surrounding Campbell County, people were beginning to feel the comeback they voted for. Unemployment has dropped by more than a third since March 2016, from 8.9 percent to 5.1 percent. Coal companies are rehiring workers, if only on contract or for temporary jobs. More people are splurging for birthday parties at the Prime Rib and buying a second scoop at the Ice Cream Cafe.

Maybe it was President Trump. Much was surely because of the market, after a colder winter led to increases in coal use and production. But in times when corporate profits are mixed with politics, it was difficult for people here to see the difference.

“I’m back to work,” Gorton said. “It’s real. Did Trump do it all? I don’t think so. But America voted in a man who was for our jobs.”

In a divided nation, optimism had bloomed here in a part of the country united in purpose and in support of the president. Close to 90 percent voted for the same presidential candidate, and 94 percent of the population is the same race. And everyone has some connection to the same industry. They felt optimistic about the tangible effects of the Trump economy, which favors fossil fuels, and the theoretical ones, which favor how they see themselves. Once on the fringes, their jobs had become the centerpiece of Trump’s American mythology.

‘We once powered the nation’

A train leaving a coal mine is seen in front of Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant operated by Basin Electric Power Cooperative. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A truck carries coal at the Eagle Butte Coal Mine in Gillette. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“I happen to love the coal miners,” Trump said Thursday, when he announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. The president said he backed out of the global agreement, in part, because it “doesn’t eliminate coal jobs. It just transfers those jobs . . . to foreign countries.”

Even so, Trump’s decision on Paris wasn’t what many here wanted; they felt it was better for the United States to be part of an agreement that so directly affects their livelihoods.

“Given that several of the coal companies in the Powder River Basin have expressed their desire for the U.S. to stay in the accord,” Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said, “it would be prudent to heed the wishes of the industries to be most affected by the accord.”

Gillette’s mayor, Louise Carter-King, said the Obama administration’s actions made it difficult for the city to develop more environmentally friendly ways to burn coal or research different uses for it. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

At least, though, they had a president who was trying to protect their jobs.

When the mines laid off workers in March 2016, the city ­spiraled down into a period of job- and soul-searching. Environmentalists on the coasts had long derided their type of work as toxic. Democrats, led by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, declared their jobs passe. Gillette had coal, oil and gas, but so much attention was placed on wind and solar and turning miners into computer programmers. In an increasingly interwoven country, residents grappled with whether there was still a place in America for their kind of community — even if it kept the lights on.

“We once powered the nation,” Gorton said. “But you got the feeling that things are not quite the same and that political forces are encroaching on your livelihood. It’s like they are willing to take away your town.”

Now the fear of what might be taken away was carried by someone else. There was another side of this American story, a tenser and more terrifying one, where immigrant families worried about deportation raids and ­liberals marched with witty placards to protest the “war on science.”

Far beyond the borders of this isolated town, many Americans were gripped by the latest evidence of the president’s coziness with the Russians, and wondered why the white working and middle classes hadn’t abandoned their increasingly unpopular president. In that America, the early optimism about Trump was fading. A Quinnipiac poll released last month said that 52 percent of Americans were pessimistic about the country’s direction, 20 percent higher than when Trump was inaugurated. And Friday’s anemic employment report, showing the country gained only 138,000 jobs in May, provided little consolation.

Gorton found it difficult to reconcile those two polarized feelings; it seemed that either you had to believe in the country’s pending prosperity or its impending doom.

“I know there are people who are scared about where the country is headed, but before I was scared,” Gorton said. “Either they’re dreaming, or I’m dreaming.”

A truck carries coal at Eagle Butte Coal Mine, a big open-pit mine seven miles north of Gillette. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A 1970s boomtown

There was a time when residents here were thankful for big government.

In the 1970s, as the federal government stiffened environmental regulations, energy companies looked westward in search of cleaner coal. They found it here in the Powder River Basin, a prairie 4,500 feet above sea level, where coal was just below the surface. It created less energy than the coal of Appalachia, but it also emitted less carbon dioxide and sulfur. There was oil and gas under the city, too, and a place whose best-known landmark was literally once a pile of rocks turned into an American boomtown.

Strip malls and highways and schools and a Rockpile Museum were built, and over time the population swelled from a few thousand to 30,000. In 2016, the median income in mining was about $78,000.

The problem with being a one-industry town is that the economy lives and dies on how the market performs. During the oil crisis of the 1980s, Gorton recalled walking into school one day and seeing that half his class was missing.

“It’s just how it was,” Gorton said. “But by next year, the classes were filled back up again.”

Carter-King said the city didn’t despair too much in those down times because the market was cyclical. If oil and gas production were down, that would generally mean companies were buying coal. If coal prices were too low, jobs in oil and gas provided some relief.

Bison wander at the Durham Bison Ranch outside Gillette. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The last great boom came with the advent of fracking in the mid-2000s. Although most of the country reeled from a recession, officials in Gillette were recruiting workers from job-starved Michigan. Developers carved out subdivisions on the southern end of the city. The county and school district built a gleaming, elaborate recreation center, complete with indoor tennis courts, modern gym equipment and a 42-foot rock-climbing wall in the shape of nearby Devil’s Tower, a national monument.

So confident was the city in its growth potential that officials spent $2.5 million to purchase 320 acres of barren land from the state. Leaders encouraged residents to think beyond their wildest imaginations about what could be done with it. They built four softball fields and drafted plans for a water park. They nicknamed the place the “Field of Dreams.”

People watch a baseball game at the Energy Capital Sports Complex on a Sunday in Gillette. The complex was paid for by money related to the energy industry. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Yet it seemed the federal government had another vision, Carter-King said. In January 2016, President Barack Obama issued a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal exploration that was a direct hit to Gillette, where most mining was done on federal land. The environmental regulations that had helped propel the industry were now stifling it.

Carter-King said Obama’s antipathy toward fossil fuels stripped the city of the ability to develop more environmentally friendly ways to burn coal, prevented leaders from researching different uses for the material and complicated efforts to export the city’s prized possession to China and other fast-growing markets.

Then came a warm 2015 winter, which led to less demand for fuel. “I’ve never seen low oil and gas prices and low coal prices all at once,” she said. “And then we had a president who didn’t want to help us. It was a perfect storm for things to get downright ­depressing.”

By all accounts, it did. After the warm winter, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy laid off close to 500 people in two of the area’s 12 mines in March 2016. Coal production dropped by 34 percent during the first half of 2016, according to state data and news reports, and the state lost nearly $300 million in tax revenue.

This downturn didn’t seem like the ones people here once knew. It felt intentional, political, personal — caused by people who residents thought didn’t understand them. Many seethed at “the environmentalists.”

“I love to fish and hike and hunt,” Gorton said. “Why would I work in an industry that would hurt my family? I try to avoid all the politics and look at the facts. And the facts are my sky is blue and my water is clean.”

Two months after the layoffs, more than 400 houses were placed on the market and about 500 children left the local school district. Residents started spending less, and the city’s sales tax revenue plummeted 40 percent. Nearly one in 10 people were unemployed.

The city cut 10 percent of its staff, and plans for the water park were indefinitely tabled. There would be no more development on the Field of Dreams.

A pedestrian walks by a mural on the side of a building in Gillette. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A tenuous optimism

Five months after Gorton returned to work, he was sitting at Pizza Carrello with his co-workers and boss.

“A round of jalapeño poppers!” Coleman demanded as the place buzzed. Coleman was feeling bullish and told his staff that the numbers looked good and more hiring was on the horizon.

“Even Hillary couldn’t have changed this short term,” he said, noting that coal prices were up again after a colder winter. But the new administration was also giving companies more confidence to invest in coal, he said. “Long term, Trump will be the difference.”

The restaurant’s co-owner, Ariane Jimison, came to greet him. She moved here from small-town Montana and achieved her dream of opening a restaurant, one of the biggest in the city.

She made some history here, too. In 2014, she and the restaurant’s co-owner, Rachel Kalenberg, became the first same-sex couple in the county to get a marriage license. They were nervous about how a conservative city would feel about them and their business.

Her customers responded by heading to the restaurant armed with cards and balloons. That was the Gillette she loved. Now she worried that, with its revival, it may be fading.

As Trump rose to the presidency, Jimison said more customers mocked her sexual orientation. Someone recently etched “Bull Dike Queers” in one of the restaurant’s wooden tables. She wondered whether Trump’s rhetoric excavated a hate that lingered as close to the surface as the coal.

“You have so much support here,” Coleman told her. “No one here cares if you’re LGBT, or a woman — I mean, person — owning a business. And everyone is more positive now that things are better.”

Chris Tryon, left, talks to Pizza Carrello co-owner Ariane Jimison while Janine Dunbar works at right. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“But there are people still hurting,” Jimison said. One of them was the man pouring their beer. He could make $39 an hour as a land surveyor, if only someone had the need for his services. A local furniture shop and clothing store were closing downtown, and the city has lost a Sears and a Sports Authority. The arts community and social service agencies were all losing money.

In Gillette, the new American optimism was tenuous and shaky. Its bedrock was that age-old patriotism, preached by its leaders, that it was never a good idea to bet against the ingenuity of the American intellect or the industriousness of the American worker.

Gorton considered himself one of those industrious American workers. When he was laid off, he considered brewing beer or learning a trade or even moving out of the state for a more stable life. But that seemed as if he was betting against himself.

“What choice do we have but to be optimistic?” Gorton said, almost embarrassed to invoke the president’s trademarked phrase. “I just have to believe that Gillette will be great again.”

“Without coal, Wyoming is over,” said a man sitting next to him, as he gripped his beer with oil-stained fingertips. Mike O’Connell said that he welded pipes for an oil company and that his industry was still on edge.

Coleman jumped in to explain the marketing statistics he had read that day. It will get better as the economy improves, he said: “It’s all supply and demand.”

O’Connell told Coleman that his unstable industry had little to do with the markets. It was all politics.

“What’s been wrong with this country is the EPA,” the welder retorted. “And Obama. Obama ruined everything. He stopped us all with all those regulations.”

Gorton interjected: “But remember, he didn’t do it by himself. He had a Republican Congress. I mean, I’m a Republican, I voted for Trump, but some of this downturn wasn’t his fault. Why wasn’t Congress there?”

“Why are you making excuses for him?” O’Connell asked, raising his voice. “You know what, you’re probably a politician. Trump will fix everything. Why? Because the people voted him in.”

“All right,” Coleman said. “I’m done arguing.”

He shoved another jalapeño popper in his mouth.

Adam Coleman of Arnold Machinery stands in front of an excavator. “Trump will be good for all of us in the long term,” he said. “He’s not scaring people away from us.” (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

O’Connell wrapped his hands around his beer and sulked.

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“I just want things to change quick,” he said. “For the first time in 10 years, I’m afraid of losing my job. I have suffered so much. I just want to work.”

“We just need another boom,” his wife, Brandy, interjected. “We used to eat steaks! Now it’s ramen and hot dogs.”

“I know,” Coleman responded after swallowing. “Let me tell you, when I was laying people off, I was teary-eyed. . . . But Trump will be good for all of us in the long term. He’s not scaring people away from us.”

O’Connell apologized for losing his temper. And if only for a moment, he, too, felt a whiff of new American possibility.

He extended his oil-stained hand to Coleman and looked into his eyes. “Maybe, one day,” he said, “you can hire me.”

A worker is seen inside Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant operated by Basin Electric Power Cooperative. The plant gets coal via a conveyor system from a nearby mine. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)