Carbon County, Wyoming, Knows Which Way the Wind Is Blowing
In the heart of coal country, the town of Rawlins will soon be home to one of the nation’s largest wind farms. But pride in the fossil fuel past remains a powerful force.
The Ekola Flats Wind Farm in Carbon County.Credit..
Photographs by Benjamin Rasmussen
- Published March 3, 2021Updated March 4, 2021, 8:52 a.m. ET
RAWLINS, Wyo. — The coal layered underground helped bring settlers to this scrubby, wind-whipped part of southern Wyoming, where generations found a steady paycheck in the mines and took pride in powering the nation.
But now, it is energy from the region’s other abundant energy resource — the wind itself — that is creating jobs and much-needed tax revenues in Carbon County.
Despite its historic ties to coal, as well as local denialism about climate change, the county is soon to be home to one of the biggest wind farms in the nation.
The United States gets only 7 percent of its energy from wind, far less than most experts believe will have a significant environmental effect. And resistance remains outspoken: Just last month, the politicization of wind energy was on full display as numerous Republicans and conservative pundits falsely blamed frozen wind turbines as a chief cause of widespread blackouts in Texas. On Sunday, former President Donald J. Trump joined in, disparaging wind power in a speech before a conservative group.
Carbon County shows how the energy transformation that America needs to make is possible, but may happen reluctantly, driven by pragmatism more than a desire to stop burning the coal and oil that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Here, at least, it comes down to the reality that mines are closing nationwide, and buyers of coal are simply disappearing.
In Wyoming, many residents like Terry Weickum support the coal industry and disapprove of the way the glossy turbines interrupt the emptiness of the sagebrush-spotted landscape. Nevertheless, Mr. Weickum helped bring wind energy to Carbon County, knowing it would help Rawlins — a community of 9,000 with its downtown gym, coffee shop and the Rifleman Club Bar — to avoid becoming yet another ghost town, forgotten as mining passes into history.
“You can stand at the tracks when the train is coming at you, or you can stand at the switch,” said Mr. Weickum, explaining his decisions to usher in wind during his tenure on the Carbon County Commissioners Association. “I chose to stand at the switch.”
The pandemic, which has driven down the price of coal, oil and gas, has only heightened the urgency for Wyoming to resolve an identity crisis over whether to let go of one of its richest assets: emissions-spewing fossil fuels. Officials are planning for devastating budget cuts in a state that some economists describe as suffering from a “resource curse,” a term often used for developing nations that underperform economically despite having an abundance of natural resources.
“The old joke in Wyoming is all you need to use to go coal mining is a three-iron. People were told that coal will always be here, that these are lifetime jobs,” said Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming. “We’re at a crossing the Rubicon moment — it went from ‘It’s never going to happen’ to ‘Now it’s happening.’”
In the midst of this economic despair, Carbon County, on the edge of the Red Desert, ended last year as one of only three counties in the state with budget surpluses, largely thanks to tax revenues from wind projects.
“If it wasn’t for wind farms, we’d be in terrible shape,” said Mr. Weickum, who recently became mayor of Rawlins, the windiest city in the state by some measures and the Carbon County seat.
The high desert landscape with vistas that stretch to the horizon makes Wyoming one of the best spots in the nation for wind. Some of the strongest, most regular gusts in America blow down from the Rocky Mountains, so fierce that freeway signs flash with warnings of gales of more than 60 miles per hour, so strong they yank sideways at cars and trucks driving down the interstate.
Wyoming’s ample wind will keep the blades spinning on the immense new project near Rawlins, featuring perhaps as many as 1,000 turbines. It’s being built by a company tied to the billionaire Philip Anschutz and could produce enough electricity to power about 1 million homes.
Smaller wind farms such as Ekola Flats are coming online elsewhere in Carbon County from Rocky Mountain Power, a utility that closed one coal mine and plans to close another. The company hired about 300 workers to build Ekola Flats, which will employ about 10 once it’s operational.
Wyoming’s 16 working mines still make up nearly 40 percent of the country’s coal production — more than three times as much as West Virginia. Wyoming, with a population of just 582,000, has abundant oil and natural gas reserves that often land it among the nation’s top 10 producers.
Wyoming’s fossil fuel industry employed about 14,900 people last year, a more than 28 percent drop from the year before. Jobs in the wind industry amount to only a few hundred, state economists estimate, with most of the work available during construction of wind farms. But, unlike the coal industry, the wind sector is growing.
Tax revenue from fossil fuels account for at least half the state’s entire budget. And Wyoming residents cheered in 2016 when Donald J. Trump, campaigning for president, met with West Virginia coal miners and told them, “Get ready because you’re going to be working your asses off.” He posed with signs that read, “Trump digs coal.”
Trump easily won Wyoming in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential races. But America’s desire to burn more coal didn’t materialize.
Wyoming’s reckoning came into sharp focus last month when President Biden announced a moratorium on drilling on federal lands, where the bulk of Wyoming’s oil fields are located. Officials have said the state could lose about $300 million in annual tax revenue from a long-term ban, along with numerous jobs.
Wyoming, with its vast wind resources, has the potential to lead the country in renewables. But the clean energy revolution espoused by Mr. Biden is not what is pushing officials here to embrace wind.
In this heavily Republican state, people raise climate change issues “only if they want to be punched in the face,” Mr. Weickum said.
What’s driving the change is pragmatism.
At least six coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past six years, and the state’s coal mining sector last year alone lost 761 jobs. Two decades ago, coal generated 96 percent of the electricity in Wyoming; by 2019, it had dropped to 84 percent. Meanwhile, in that same time period wind grew from almost nothing to 10 percent.
Despite the stark economic reality of the coal industry’s decline, state officials are still trying to preserve Wyoming’s fossil fuel resources, particularly coal. The state has dedicated $15 million to creating the Wyoming Integrated Test Center to study the capture of carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants. And Gov. Mark Gordon talks about pitching Boeing on ideas to use Wyoming coal for carbon fiber airplane wings or persuading auto manufacturers to use its coal for carbon fiber vehicle bodies.
Mr. Gordon welcomes the development of renewable energy, and says he believes climate change is a threat, but also promised this week in his state of the state speech to protect coal, lamenting what he called the Biden administration’s “crazed pursuit of 100 percent ‘green’ energy.”
Mr. Weickum, 68,has watched the decline of coal since he moved to Rawlins four decades ago in hopes of profiting off the industry. Recently, he has felt the shift in his own printing and sign-making business that once relied on coal companies as customers. Last year he had no business from coal, and $150,000 of business from wind companies.
Describing himself as “a crazy old man who can’t sit still for 10 minutes,” Mr. Weickum likes to emphasize that he is not “pro-wind.”
Like a number of public officials and residents in this part of the state, he also questions whether human activity is causing the climate to change, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is. “I think our climate is changing because the earth is in a cycle,” Mr. Weickum said. “Do I agree with Al Gore? No.”
While Rawlins is trying to transition, a cautionary tale stands just a few miles east on the interstate. The community of Hanna was so economically devastated by the loss of its mines in the mid-2000s that people lifted homes off their foundations and carted them away, hoping to preserve their value.
In Carbon County, dozens of wind companies began approaching Mr. Weickum and other local politicians during the Obama administration. County officials were intrigued by the prospect of jobs and tax revenues that wind projects would bring, particularly during construction. They would never provide enough jobs to replace the large numbers offered by workers needed in mines and oil fields, but it was something, they reasoned.
Yet officials wrestled with the idea of interrupting the wild vistas so cherished that the wide-open landscapes are etched onto headstones at the Rawlins cemetery. “It scared us,” said Mr. Weickum. “There were 50-some wind projects coming at us, and that would destroy our way of life.”
Mr. Weickum worked for months with other officials to adopt statewide standards for wind projects and to come up with a taxation structure that aimed to ensure revenue but not discourage new companies. His support for wind projects came with a political cost. He believes he lost his seat on the Carbon County Commissioners Association because of wind farms he approved when he was head of the group’s wind task force.
In the state capitol, several lawmakers have tried to levy new taxes on wind farms. State Senator Cale Case, a Republican and an economist by training, issues perennial calls for wind companies to pay more taxes because he said projects are so “land intensive.”
“When people look at the situation in Wyoming and think, ‘Oh my God, coal is dead, we’ve got to find something to fill the gap,’ we rush and do this,” Senator Case said, speaking about wind companies that hoist turbines almost five times as tall as the highest building in the state. “This is one of the largest undeveloped places in the United States. There’s a pure existence value on its own to see what the early people saw, what the pioneers saw, just to be able to breathe.”
In Wyoming, even as wind farms are increasingly common, residents still have concerns. The projects take over hunting land. The lights on some turbines pollute the Stygian sky. And even though residents brag about powering the nation with coal, they complain that wind energy is mostly transmitted out of state, for use by people elsewhere.
And the towering wind farms threaten migration patterns for antelope, elk and even the mule deer, which some people consider pests as they graze in the cemetery, in front yards and on the high school football field, menacing Rawlins “like 200-pound rats,” Mr. Weickum said. Several years ago, he noted, his own beloved dog, a Chihuahua named Cujo, was stomped to death by a mule deer.
But the worry on most people’s minds is whether welcoming the wind industry will speed job losses in the fossil fuel industry. “They feel like wind energy is somehow in competition with coal, oil and gas,” Mr. Weickum said. “In an abstract way, it is.”
He isn’t the only local official with mixed feelings.
In Campbell County, in the northeastern part of the state and the most active coal mining area in Wyoming, hundreds of workers lost mining jobs last year. And more job losses are on the horizon.
Rusty Bell, a county commissioner there, is eager to find other uses for the coal underfoot. He recalled the time he visited Washington and peered up at all the government office buildings. They “look like giant hospitals,” he said, and in each room, he thought to himself, was someone who was writing policy that would affect him yet who had little idea about his way of life.
“This is not just our coal, this is your coal,” he said. “If that’s a resource we’re going to say we’re just never going to use, then obviously our community is going to have to change a lot.”