Gillette, Wyo. — Gillette, a rural town an hour’s drive from Devil’s Tower, is subject not to the whims of fate alone but to those of the federal government.
Its golden opportunity came nearly 25 years ago, when Congress, with a regulation intended to cut down on acid rain, inadvertently sparked a coal boom in the region. But today, as the Environmental Protection Agency pursues new regulations to cut carbon emissions, Gillette may again see its fortunes change.
Gillette might seem an unlikely center of the American coal industry. Visitors can get there by flying into Denver, then making the 350-mile drive — first on Interstate 25, and then on two-lane highways where I saw more antelope than lights or road signs. Gas stations are sparse along the way, and they all sell Sturgis tchotchkes during the summer. At one, I uneasily watched a grizzled motorcyclist light up his cigarette as he pumped fuel.
The town has become a hotspot for the energy industry in large part due to the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which disrupted the domestic coal market by creating a regulatory preference for low-sulfur coal — precisely the type found in the mineral-rich Powder River Basin where the town sits. Before the Clean Air Act amendments of the 1990s, Wyoming put out less than 200 million tons of coal a year; since then, production has more than doubled.
Without seeing it firsthand, it’s almost impossible to fathom the colossal scale of coal production in the area. Contrary to the popular impression, Wyoming — not Pennsylvania or West Virginia or Kentucky — dominates the American coal industry, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the nation’s total production and churning out, on average, twelve tons of coal each second. Last year, the state celebrated its ten-billionth ton of coal mined.
Cloud Peak Energy’s Cordero Rojo Mine, an open-surface site about 30 minutes’ drive outside of Gillette, is the third biggest coal producer in the United States. It singlehandedly turns out enough each day to provide 20 minutes of electricity for every man, woman, and child in the United States, its technical-services manager Brian Wenig tells me. Shovels as big as New York City studio hang suspended from machines as large as ships, scooping dirt away from the coal beds beneath. It takes 17 trains daily, carrying 16,000 tons apiece, to keep up with Cordero Rojo’s coal production.
And then there’s the vehicles that carry the extracted coal from the mine to those train-loading stations — they’re so big they dwarf the school buses that carry some miners to work; so big that they have to drive on the left side of the road because the drivers can’t see where the right side ends; so big that as a safety precaution, workers radio in a warning before driving near them. (During my visit, we also radioed to alert them not to run over a raft of ducks that had wandered over from the restored mine land nearby.) To illustrate the perilous might of these gigantic vehicles, the Cordero Rojo Mine administration once drove one over an empty scrap pick-up truck, crushing it. The driver said he didn’t even feel it crumple beneath him, Wenig tells me.
This large-scale coal production has buoyed Gillette’s economy. Abandoning its red-neck and rough-edged reputation from the 1970s and ’80s, the town of about 32,000 finds itself moneyed and increasingly swanky. Between 2008 and 2012, the median household in Campbell County earned $77,090 — more than $20,000 above the state’s median income — in a state where a dollar still buys a decent amount. The average worker at a Cloud Peak mine earns $69,000 a year, not including benefits.