Wyoming unprepared to grab federal coal community lifeline, experts say


WYOMING -- Wyoming stands to receive millions in federal stimulus dollars aimed at helping coal- and energy-reliant communities survive industry downturns and diversify their economies. The state, however, is currently unprepared to capitalize on the opportunity, stakeholders say. 

The federal funds are not automatically allocated, but available on a competitive grant application basis. The exact amount — and for what — depends on the readiness of state and local governments to develop, pitch and implement initiatives that qualify. 

Coordination among coal communities and the state to compete for and deploy those dollars is lacking, according to Energy Capital Economic Development CEO Phil Christopherson. Energy Capital is the local economic development authority in Campbell County, home to the largest coal mining region in the country. 

Few Wyoming communities have the experience and grant-writing expertise necessary to qualify and compete on a national scale, Christopherson said, and they could benefit from more state assistance.

“We aren’t working with any other communities and, as far as I know, no other communities are working together,” Christopherson said. Many coal community revitalization programs are based on regional efforts to leverage resources and attract federal dollars. “I think it’d be good if we could, but we just haven’t really been able to coordinate any statewide or regional efforts as far as this money goes.”

At stake is a $300 million spending package from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Coal Communities Commitment to revitalize “hard-hit” coal and energy communities. The package is part of a broader $3 billion Department of Commerce initiative to help “communities around the country not only rebuild but reimagine their economy for the future,” Commerce Secretary Gina Riamondo said in a July press release.

Gov. Mark Gordon and members of the Legislature have said communities in Wyoming don’t need to “transition” away from a reliance on coal and fossil fuels. Instead, the Legislature has pushed a series of measures to keep coal plants and coal mines in operation. Meantime, Gordon has launched initiatives such as “Survive, Drive, and Thrive” to take advantage of federal pandemic relief funds in ways that tangentially achieve some of the same federal long-term sustainability goals for coal communities. 

What’s missing, according to Wyoming Economic Development Association Administrator Brittany Ashby, is a cohesive state-level strategy for how vulnerable communities can diversify and sustain themselves if the coal sector continues to shrink.

“I think we have a long way to go,” Ashby said. 

The $300 million Coal Communities Commitment seeds President Joe Biden’s Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, created by executive order in January. The working group’s April report lists Wyoming among the top 25 most impacted regions for coal-related job declines and prioritizes the eastern half of the state as No. 8 and the western half of the state at No. 9.

“Given the expected near-term declines in coal production and generation from coal power plants, the Working Group recommends focusing initial federal investments in areas with high concentrations of coal-dependent jobs,” the report states.

Contributing to Wyoming’s ranking is the fact that Rocky Mountain Power has set early retirement dates for several coal-fired power units that are economic drivers for communities such as Glenrock, Rock Springs and Kemmerer. Coal mine production in the Powder River Basin — the nation’s largest coal mining region by volume — has declined by half since 2008, shedding thousands of direct and indirect jobs. Arch Resources, meanwhile, has said it plans to close its Coal Creek and Black Thunder mines in the basin.

Wyoming’s most recent economic analysis revealed that its energy communities were hardest hit by the pandemic in 2020, and that some are recovering at a slower pace than communities that are not reliant on fossil fuel industries.

Among the “immediate action” priorities for the federal stimulus dollars is to build more broadband capacity and connectivity, boost manufacturing and technology-based industrial parks, agricultural innovation hubs, environmental remediation, workforce development, healthcare and “non-profit job creators.”

The competitive federal grant process presents a challenge. Many coal communities across the country targeted for the federal stimulus funds don’t have the necessary resources or expertise to navigate what can be an arduous federal bureaucratic process, let alone to stand out in a competitive granting environment, according to Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for the nonprofit Appalachian Voices.

“That’s a problem everywhere, not just in Wyoming,” Barnes said, adding that many of the communities are in economic distress. “You can try throwing a bunch of money here, but unless there’s technical support, or changes to the requirements for some of these programs, it’s not going to actually reach the communities that need them the most.”  

Barnes believes that the EDC and other federal agencies are beginning to take those concerns into account, she said. The Interagency Working Group had planned to host a series of public workshops in coal communities across the country, but recently shifted to a virtual online effort.

The working group will host a Coal Communities Commitment webinar at noon on Thursday to discuss eligibility and how to apply.

Wyoming communities are not unfamiliar with granting programs through the Economic Development Administration, Ashby of the Wyoming Economic Development Association said. However, the EDA programs come with a lot of reporting requirements that stretch thin resources at small economic development offices.

“As a state, we have struggled to have communities want to put in the time that some of those (EDA) federal grants take,” Ashby said. “I think that’s partially a cultural thing in Wyoming.”

The Wyoming Economic Development Association convinced EDA representatives to come to Wyoming in August to visit with local economic development officials about the new coal community stimulus granting opportunities, according to Ashby.

The Wyoming Business Council is stepping up efforts to help communities take advantage of the federal coal community stimulus programs, WBC Strategic Partnerships Director Ron Gullberg said. But it’s mostly on a per-request basis.

“We know there’s the EDA funding coming,” Gullberg said. “We’re going to be part of a collaborative effort. Right now it’s really getting the partnerships together and looking at what the needs are.”

Christopherson of Energy Capital in Campbell County said his organization was successful in landing a $1.46 million grant from the EDA for the Wyoming Innovation Center, a major component of the “carbon valley” vision for northeast Wyoming. He hopes to tap the EDA’s new revitalization initiative to help fund a non-energy-centric business park proposal that has circulated for several years.

“Through our work with EDA grants, what I have found is that you need to have a couple of applications that have already been through all the preliminary stuff, just sitting on the shelf ready to go, so when this money comes out you can apply for it,” Christoperson said. “Right now (Campbell County is) not in that situation, but I think this money should be good for us.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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