Where Wind Farms Meet Coal Country, There’s Enduring Faith in Trump

Source: By CLIFFORD KRAUSS, New York Times • Posted: Friday, December 15, 2017

GLENROCK, Wyo. — No place is more likely than this one to benefit from President Trump’s promise to make the United States a dominant energy force in the world, or more likely to be disappointed if the promise is not kept.

A sparsely populated expanse of windswept rolling meadows and sharp bluffs filled with pine trees and the occasional ranch and hay farm, Converse County also has some of the country’s richest resources: the nation’s third-largest coal mine, its largest uranium production facility, four big wind farms, more than a thousand oil and gas wells, and a large coal-fired power plant.

Cameco Resources’ Smith Ranch-Highland mine near Glenrock is part of the nation’s largest uranium production facility. A worker tested a well into which water and resin are injected to extract uranium.

But diversified in nothing but energy, the county and nearly the entire state of Wyoming are acutely vulnerable to commodity prices. And while oil and coal prices have headed higher of late, they remain far below the levels of recent years, resulting in layoffs and plummeting tax receipts.

“For sale” signs dot nearly every residential neighborhood as young energy workers have left to seek jobs in healthier labor markets in Colorado and Utah. Occupancy at the Higgins Hotel, a landmark in this town of 2,500, dropped 80 percent between 2014 and 2016, and according to Doug Frank, the owner, this year there has been “a slight uptick, but nothing noticeable yet.”

Nevertheless, like so many others here, Mr. Frank, who is also mayor of Glenrock, has not lost faith in the president.

“The mind-set is huge — it is what is driving the people here,” Mayor Frank said while shaking margaritas and his own high-octane concoctions for customers at the Antelope Bar in his hotel. “The most amazing thing about his base is the willingness to forgive the cacophony. We see a greater good coming.”

The greater good, in the view of local residents from energy executives to roustabouts, depends on slashing environmental regulations, including restrictions on pipeline building that could deliver more Wyoming oil and gas to faraway markets. They applaud the lifting of the moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands. Many approve of Mr. Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate accord, and the administration’s move to unwind President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was designed to control power plant emissions.

They express hope that the president can limit oil imports while encouraging more production and exports. The unflinching sentiment may best be expressed by a sticker appearing on the back of some local pickup trucks that says “Trump 2017-2025,” with the T depicted as a gushing oil well.

“My livelihood, taking care of my family, depended on Trump’s election,” said Bryant Michael, a 27-year-old technician who fills heavy oil-field equipment and trucks with fuel. Unemployed for a year, he was hired in May as drilling began to pick up again.

“I think Washington is a main factor in where we get our oil and what we do with it,” he said. “Somebody was whispering in Obama’s ear. Every time there’s a Democrat in the White House, there’s hardly any work in the oil field.”

Actually, oil and gas exploration soared during most of the Obama administration before it swooned in the final two years. But Mr. Trump’s embrace of coal mining and unfettered energy production is particularly welcome here, since almost everyone is dependent on energy jobs — coal miners and their families, out-of-state oil workers who drill and complete wells, and the business owners and service workers catering to everyone. This is a place that gauges its well-being by the local rig count and, since big-time coal mining began here in the 1970s and 1980s, how often mile-long coal trains pass by.

Things could still be going far better. During the first nine months of the year, coal production at Cloud Peak Energy’s Antelope Mine, a pillar of the local economy, increased by a fraction of 1 percent over the same period in 2016, a particularly weak year. Employment at the mine peaked in 2015 at 616, and is now around 530 — equal to what it was when Mr. Trump was inaugurated — even though the nation’s coal exports are up this year.

And there has been little regulatory relief so far, energy executives note. The end of the moratorium on leasing on federal lands means more certainty that the Antelope Mine can be extended someday, but that would not make a difference for more than five years into the future, and only if there is greater demand for coal.

But there are some positive signs. Coal prices have risen, along with natural gas, in part because demand is up in South Korea, Japan and parts of Europe. Four large wind farms have been built in recent years, including one completed last fall, and expansions are on the way. But all of them together, according to county officials, employ at most 100 workers full time.

“People think Trump is a good guy, so people trust his judgment,” said Robert G. Short, a leading Glenrock businessman who is vice chairman of the Converse County commissioners. But he added: “Are we going back to where we were? The simple answer is no. Coal is diminished and never will likely come back.”

Though few people here say so, the energy workers of Converse County are competing with one another. The hydraulic-fracturing boom is coaxing more natural gas out of the local shale fields, which lowers both gas and coal prices and depresses the attractiveness of nuclear energy. And the growing wind power — helped along by tax incentives enacted at the end of the Obama administration — ultimately eats into the market share of all the other energy sources.

And yet the workers in all the energy sources wistfully see themselves as having common goals and say Mr. Trump may offer the county its last big hope.

A Search for Security

The coal-fired Dave Johnston Power Plant, outside Glenrock, is like a monument to the county’s energy legacy. Its giant chimneys and plumes of smoke dominate the skyline by day, while at night it offers a display of colors so bright it looks like a small city from the Rocky Mountain foothills nearby. It is where Shawn Gates is living the Wyoming dream, though he knows it may be ending sooner rather than later.

Since going to work in 2011 at the plant, where his father is also employed, he has worked his way up to become a control room operator and makes more than $40 an hour. With overtime and shift differentials, he has, at 36, acquired a solidly middle-class living. He, his wife and their four children live in a comfortable ranch house with a motorboat and a recreational vehicle in the front yard and a trampoline in the back, along with eight horses.

His 10-year-old son, Guthry, hopes to work in the plant as well, extending the family’s foothold there to a fourth generation.

During the presidential campaign last year, Mr. Gates said, “job security was on my mind,” especially after Hillary Clinton said she was going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Now he feels better.

“I think my job is fairly secure,” he said during a chat at his kitchen table. “I don’t think it would have been under Hillary. I can’t find another job like mine.”

But even as he praises Mr. Trump’s goals, he sees warning signs. “I think he will keep fossil fuels operating and keep E.P.A. within limits,” Mr. Gates said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency. But knitting his brow with concern, he added, “They’re putting all these wind turbines up that are not cost effective, at the taxpayer’s expense.”

Mr. Gates’s wife, Jesi, a nurse, said Mr. Trump’s election was great for Wyoming, but “he can only do so much as one person.” She noted that the power plant was tentatively scheduled to be shut down in a decade, adding: “That 2027 date definitely looms in your mind. At least my kids will have graduated from high school by then.”


Mr. Gates grew up in Glenrock, and worked for a while as a ranch hand, maintained water wells and did some electrical work. On the side, he took online business classes. But he always had energy on his mind — “that’s what Wyoming is,” he said.

When it was time to raise a family, he followed in his father’s footsteps for the steady salary and insurance. He has done well at the plant, moving from the coal yard to his current position as assistant auxiliary operator responsible for the vital task of checking motors and oil levels.

Like many in Converse County, Mr. Gates expresses a strong distrust for Washington and elites in general. “You need to clean house of politicians,” he said, calling for term limits for Congress.

Even his attitude toward Mr. Trump is not entirely positive: “I think he’s blunt. I don’t think he is dishonest, but I don’t think he’s 100 percent truthful, either.” Still, he said, “he got elected, so let him do his job.”

Wind Jobs, Coal Attitudes

Woody Ricker, a 38-year-old technician at Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm outside Glenrock, comes at the energy picture from a different perspective. But his views, like those of many wind workers here, are surprisingly similar to those of workers whose jobs rely on coal.

For years, he has been teased by friends for having an “Obama job” in an area where wind farms are seen as taking business from the coal industry. He also knows that the growth of renewable energy sources in recent years, like the one responsible for his employment, has a lot to do with concerns about climate change.


But Mr. Ricker, like most of his neighbors in and around the town of Douglas, isn’t particularly convinced that humans have much impact on climate change.

“I am not convinced on what has caused the change in climate,” he said. “Doing a fix without finding a root cause? I don’t see it.”

He anticipated the next question. “So why am I working in the wind industry?” he asked. “I’m not in it for that. I’m in it to produce more American energy, to make it more stable.”

Mr. Ricker, who lives with his wife, Stacey, and their three children in a house surrounded by craggy bluffs and sunflowers, fell into the wind business. Having grown up here and studied biology in college, he owned a local construction company with his father until business dried up during the last recession. When some men who came by to look at one of his properties liked his handiwork, they suggested that he apply for a job with their wind contract business.

Needing good health insurance to pay for his daughter’s hip surgery, he made the switch and eventually went to Duke when the big utility took over operations of the wind farm. At a time when many states and business customers are demanding more clean energy, Mr. Ricker is not worried that Mr. Trump might turn against renewables.

“I have had people presume my political leanings because of my job — incorrectly, for the record,” he said.

Although Mr. Ricker has no family roots in the energy business — his father was an assistant pastor who was also a cowboy — he relates to fossil fuels as much as he does to wind.


“Coal and oil are what keep the value of my house where it is,” he said. “I’m hugely in favor of American energy, and if I’m going to pick a state that it will benefit, it’s Wyoming.”

A coal man would not have said it much differently.

‘I Don’t Have to Like Him’

Slowly but surely, women are entering the energy work force, and while they tend to be as outspoken as the men, their views sometimes sharply differ.

Pam Graham, a truck driver at the Cloud Peak mine, is a rarity in Converse County. She’s a Democrat who thinks that climate change is no hoax, that the Affordable Care Act should be fixed and not scrapped, and that as for immigration, “the idea of building a wall is a stupid thing.”

Her choicest words are aimed at Mr. Trump’s treatment of women, which she describes as disrespectful. “I get tired of the tweeting,” she said. “And that whole thing with the grabbing of women, that’s just nasty.”

“Those women should have decked him,” she said sternly as she steered 240 tons of coal loaded on her Komatsu haul truck through the deep canyons of the strip mine. She quickly smiled, and added with a knowing chuckle, “I would have given him a black eye.”

But when she cast her ballot, she said, there was no doubt that she would vote for Mr. Trump.

While not an ideological conservative, Ms. Graham looks to the president to bolster the fortunes of Converse County energy, and in the end that was the most important consideration in choosing him over Mrs. Clinton.

“I don’t have to like him as a person,” she explained. “I was thinking if she won, in a few years we’d probably be out of work. Am I going to find another job that pays $30 an hour?”

At 53, Ms. Graham is an avid motorcycle rider who brings a personal style to her job. “There’s a view of a coal miner with a black face and dirty fingers, and I don’t look like one — I dress up,” she said. “When I go out to do errands, I like to wear fashionable girlie clothes.”

Before she enters her truck cabin for the day’s first run, she sprays disinfectant on the seats and thoroughly wipes off the dashboard. “I’m probably a little unconventional, yeah,” she said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ms. Graham came to her job in an unconventional way, though her grandfather worked in the oil and gas business as a tool pusher and her stepfather drove water trucks in the oil field. Local coal mining was still in its infancy when she grew up in Douglas, so after dropping out of junior college, she waited on tables and worked as a bartender. She had a child, divorced and worked as a bank teller and personal loan officer for nearly 12 years.

Tired of banking, she saw an advertisement in the newspaper for coal truck drivers, applied and started working for Cloud Peak. She said the toughest thing about learning the job had been her fear of heights, since a truck cabin is as high off the ground as the roof of a house. “I didn’t look down from the truck for two years,” she said.

Ms. Graham has remarried, to an old high school friend who is a contractor, and she helps take care of five grandchildren. She is one of 61 women employed by the mine. For her, the best thing that Mr. Trump brings is more security.

“Before the election, I felt my livelihood was threatened — not just my job, but my way of life,” she said. “We have a house and a mortgage, and there are 130-some houses on the market around Douglas, so where are we going to go?”

She is less than enthusiastic about the president’s performance, but said he was, at least, putting a spotlight on coal’s importance. “We’re the redheaded stepchild,” she said. “People don’t understand that if it weren’t for us, and they turned on the heat, nothing would happen.”