In Wyoming, Hard Times Return as Energy Prices Slump
WRIGHT, Wyo. — For 17 years, Scott Pearce worked as a mechanic here in the Powder River Basin, a Saudi Arabia of Western coal deposits. But about a week ago he became a casualty of the declining local economy, one of nearly 500 people laid off from the Black Thunder and North Antelope Rochelle mines. It was among the latest and worst round of job losses to hit Wyoming.
Hard times have come crashing back on energy-reliant towns like this one in northern Wyoming, where lives and fortunes hinge on the coal, oil and gas buried beneath the rolling plains.
Tumbling prices for oil and gas, along with bankruptcies in the coal industry, have pummeled Wyoming’s energy-dependent economy and eroded a thin safety net for poor and older residents. Energy development helped Wyoming weather the nation’s thin years seven or eight years ago, but now officials estimate that energy companies have shed some 5,500 jobs — a huge number in a state with 580,000 residents.
A church in Gillette, about 40 miles north, held a prayer vigil for laid-off miners last week, and state officials were scrambling to find them seasonal work with state parks or jobs as prison guards. But U-Haul vans and trailers are already starting to carry people away from Wright, a town of 1,800 that sprouted up in the 1980s to serve the mines.
Bankruptcies in the coal industry and a slowdown in oil drilling have sown economic pain and budget shortfalls from Appalachia to Alaska, but the effects have been especially concentrated in Wyoming.
The state’s unemployment rate has climbed by 1.2 percentage points over the past year, more than in any other state. While Wyoming’s overall jobless rate is about even with the national average of 5 percent, the layoffs in mining country have created pockets of a new recession, raising fears that rural economies out here are veering away from the rest of the country’s economic progress.
“It is, no question, a hard time for the state,” Gov. Matt Mead said in a telephone interview. “As difficult as it is now, I think it can get worse. If these people pack up and leave, the local restaurant won’t even get that occasional business. It’s heartbreaking to see.”
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