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…
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