GILLETTE – Campbell County officials are disappointed that there seems to be no guidance from the state level as far as what’s next for Wyoming.
Commissioner Rusty Bell said that while the fossil fuel industry continues to decline, there hasn’t been any leadership or direction from the state when it comes to transitioning away from thermal coal.
That has led to communities taking “a shotgun approach” to doing projects that are best for their own futures, but there is no unified vision for the state as a whole.
There are billions of dollars in federal funding available to help areas that have been hit by the decline in the coal industry and the closing of coal-fired power plants.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency recently allocated $300 million of its $3 billion American Rescue Plan appropriation to support coal communities as they recover from the pandemic and to help them create new jobs and opportunities, including through the creation or expansion of a new industry sector.
The county will be going after some of that money to help build an industrial park east of Cam-plex.
And earlier this year, the White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization identified $38 billion in federal dollars that can be accessed by coal-reliant communities for “infrastructure, environmental remediation, union job creation, and community revitalization efforts.”
That includes $75 million in funding to engineer carbon capture projects, and $19.5 million in funding for critical mineral extraction from coal and associated waste streams.
With the amount of money that’s available, Bell said there should be some direction from the state as to which communities would benefit most from which pools of money.
“It seems like there should be some guidance, someone overseeing this whole thing,” he said.
It’s not like the communities are standing idly by in the meantime, he said.
“I think everybody’s doing things in their own silos, really well, trying to do things in their best interest,” he said.
But right now, there is no state leadership as far as a unified direction for Wyoming moving forward, Bell said.
“Wyoming Energy Authority doesn’t do it, the governor’s office doesn’t do it. We all just do our own things. We have different partners but there is no leadership in this whole concept,” Bell said. “It’s kind of a shotgun approach, because we’re all doing our own thing.”
It’s a task that’s easier said than done, said Phil Christopherson, executive director of Energy Capital Economic Development. Some of the funding requires collaboration between communities, and each community is different, so getting regional cooperation is difficult.
He agreed that there’s “no real direction from the state” when it comes to this, and he didn’t foresee it coming any time soon, just because of how busy the state is with other things.
That’s not to say the state isn’t doing anything to help. The county has partnered with the state entities – like the governor’s office, the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources – on a number of large projects. Those include the Wyoming Innovation Center and the CarbonSAFE project, both of which, if successful, will help with the transition from thermal coal.
“I don’t want people to think transition means that you’re giving up on your bread and butter. That’s not it at all,” Bell said.
It can be argued that Wyoming is one large coal-reliant community. When coal was at its peak, the whole state benefited from it. Now, with coal on a continual decline, the whole state is feeling the effects of that as well, Bell said.
Whatever Wyoming’s future holds, and whatever that transition looks like, all of its communities will be affected, and the state should be taking the lead on that, Bell said.
While it would be nice if the commissioners could focus all of their time on those developments, their main charge is taking care of county government.
For now, the county is getting by on the shotgun approach. After two unsuccessful attempts at getting grant funding for the Pronghorn Industrial Park, it will soon apply for American Rescue Plan money for the $12 million project.
The park will be located east of Cam-plex, and when complete it will have eight shovel-ready sites.
The county had planned to do the project in phases because of the limited amount of grant money. But now that there is $300 million available, commissioners hope to apply for the entire project.
“It will not take long to get a tenant in there,” Bell said.
It’s projects like that one that commissioners hope will help Campbell County in its transition.
Christopherson said that for all of the things Campbell County has going for it – low taxes, a skilled workforce, great amenities – none of it matters to a company that’s looking to move here if there isn’t a place for them to move in right away.
“We’ve missed out because we don’t have the sites available for businesses to come. They want to move faster than we (are able to),” he said.
Christopherson is part of a recently created business and industrial park task force to see what industry needs as far as business parks and to work with the private sector to see what can be done to attract and keep businesses here.
“If it’s going to take us another year to get permitted, another year to get streets in, they’re gone,” he said. “They’re not interested, they’re going to find some place else.”
“We have to figure out what over the next few years makes Campbell County a place that you should be,” Bell said.
In order to move forward, there needs to be a lot of collaboration between communities.
“Nobody wants more meetings unless it looks like there’s an end goal,” he said, and right now, there does not appear to be one.
“There’s just no overarching entity that says, ‘OK, this is the vision of Wyoming,’” he said. “We have a lot of good partners. But there’s a void at the top, somebody coordinating and helping not just Campbell County but all the communities move forward in some sort of unified way.”
Bell said he wasn’t sure if that leadership is going to come any time soon.
“I hope so,” he said. “But with or without that person, communities have to go forward to do what’s best for (them).”