By Sarah Hale
Star Valley Independent
Via Wyoming News Exchange
AFTON — Fear and uncertainty might be good words to describe the emotions of many in the state as the future of coal production in Wyoming remains in question.
But, according to Lincoln County Commissioner Kent Connelly, this is one county that is not taking the news lying down.
“We have had legal council at those negotiations that have been going on in court to make sure that we are covering our interests in Lincoln County,” Connelly said. “One of the key things on it they are in negotiations with the union right now, Westmoreland is. They gave them 14-days to resolve the issues. I do not know the results of those negotiations. But they are actively working to come to a resolution.”
“In the midst of all of this, of course, Rocky Mountain Power shut down Unit Number 3,” Connelly continued. “Which is a big piece of our tax base -- roughly about $700,000 to the school district in North Lincoln County and right at $1.4 million to the school district in the south.”
“The coal sales, they are worth a lot of money,” Connelly continued. “Westmoreland Coal pays $9.4 million in taxes out of an $18 million [county] budget and that speaks for itself in what impacts that could have. The direct impacts of that unit shutting down will mean cuts in Lincoln County at some place, some time, somewhere.”
But, according to Connelly, it is not all doom and gloom.
“The future of Lincoln County -- we have some oil and gas development going on,” said Connelly. “We believe there is still development that is going to take place in Lincoln County. ConocoPhillips is coming in with a project. We have some stuff going on like that.”
The question remains, however, as to whether new development will be enough if coal mining and power production does not continue.
“That coal mine and that power plant, they directly affect all of us as tax payers. We want to see them succeed. We have a lot of good people in Lincoln County, hard-working people that the impacts will be tremendous on,” said Connelly. “Rocky Mountain Power has been a partner with us for a long time. We hope that they are going to move forward in a direction that will not only be beneficial to them but beneficial to us. But we’ve got to rise up and be able to support our people and support the fact we need the coal industry and we need modern technology to be employed in some of these plants so that we don’t lose them all.”
“This decision, not only the bankruptcy of Westmoreland but Rocky Mountain Power’s IRP plan could have impacts across the entire State of Wyoming,” said Connelly. “We supply a lot of coal out of Wyoming and it funds our schools - that’s all there is to it.”
According to Commissioner Robert King, Lincoln County has taken and continues to take an active stance with regard to the future of energy and jobs in Lincoln County.
“I’m very concerned about this,” he said. “I don’t know that we can just shove this off and say, well this might happen or that might happen.”
“One of the things that we have done is the National Association of County Officials is putting on a workshop/challenge in Denver May 1-3 for counties that have been affected by the reduction of coal production -- which fits us really well. We’ve put together a team of seven individuals to go down to that workshop.”
King is hopeful that the team can attend the workshop and learn some different strategies to help Lincoln County move into the future.
“We are looking at training for employees that may be displaced,” King said. “Things that they might be able to do in the future - or looking at ways we can sustain the workforce in Kemmerer.”
According to Connelly, a key to the whole puzzle of what the future of energy in Lincoln County looks like is timing.
“We want to know timing,” he said. “We want to be better informed about when this is coming and what we can do in the future to be partners in big business and keep this county viable. We have a proactive approach. We are not sitting still and waiting for this to happen and see how well we can survive.”
“We are reaching out and have been for a couple of years,” said Connelly. “If people have ideas of businesses we can piggy back off of -- and we will be reaching out to other employers in the area and how they are hiring because we don’t want to lose our workforce. We want to move into the future. The future of power in the Western United States will change with time - it always does. There is new technology we need to get employed into this thing and we want to be a partner in that and have a voice at that table to keep this county moving forward.”