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Wyo. governor promises support for coal layoffs, warns of long-term challenges


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Wyo. governor promises support for coal layoffs, warns of long-term challenges

Aftertwo of the country's largest coal producers announced hundreds of layoffs at Wyomingmines, the state's political leadership responded with pledges of support and long-termservices but few immediate solutions for the battered local industry.

Latelast week, Arch Coal Inc.and Peabody Energy Corp.announced cuts in staffat some of the country's largest mines, citing an array of market and regulatorychallenges that have weighed down the state's struggling coal industry. A representativefor the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce, near where the mines are located, toldS&P Global Market Intelligence that further staff reductions had in the area in recent months.

As thelargest state producer of coal in the country, Wyoming has struggled to fend offthe industry downturn in recent years and sustain needed tax revenue from one ofits largest sectors. In addition to coal, Wyoming also relies heavily on oil andgas production, which has also suffered under the pressure of low pricing.

Lastweek's layoffs marked the latest in a stream of staff reductions that have plaguedthe state and served to force the industry's troubles into political view.

Wyoming'sRepublican Gov. Matt Mead responded to the layoffs and broader downturn hours afterthe reductions had been announced, calling a press conference to announce a "rapidresponse team" of state officials intended to help those communities impactedby the job losses.

"Thisis an immediate and very personal problem," Mead said, recalling time spentliving in the city of Gillette, a town located near the affected mines.

Meadintroduced a team of state officials, including those from the Wyoming BusinessCouncil, Department of Insurance, Department of Workforce Services and local communitycolleges, meant to provide immediate and longer-term services to the newly unemployed.

Allowingthat these services would provide little relief for the ailing coal industry orhope for its long-term survival, Mead stated that this was a vital reaction to somethingbeyond the state's immediate control, comparing the downturn to a natural disaster.

"Whenwe have a natural disaster in the state, we put together the appropriate team torespond to it," Mead said. "This isn't a natural disaster, but it's certainlya disaster in terms of the personal lives of those miners and what it's going tomean for those communities and businesses."

"Coalmining has meant so much to this state," Mead later added. "When somethinglike this happens, we want to do our best to alleviate the situation."

Meadwent on to outline the host of challenges facing the state's coal industry, notingthat warmer-than-expected winter temperatures had dashed any hope of a recoveryin demand this year. Further, coal export projects intended to allow Powder RiverBasin coal to reach the Asian market had met with further delays and resistancefrom coastal states.

A fewdays after Mead's press conference, the likelihood of new coal export projects continuedto erode with news that the developers behind the Gateway Pacific project in Washingtonhad paused ,its environmentalreview of the project.

Accordingto a representative from SSA Marine,the developers behindthe Gateway project, the pause will last until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineersreleases its final decision on a challenge from the Lummi Nation regarding tribalfishing rights. Should that be decided in the project's favor, the environmentalreview will begin again.

Despitethose obstacles, Mead repeated plans to "double down" on his efforts toensure that Wyoming coal has a future, including a pledge to continue his fightagainst Obama administration environmental regulations and support access to exportmarkets. In 2015, Mead signed new bond legislation that would a billion dollars for infrastructureoutside of the state. Whilethe state law allows financial backing for any infrastructure projects outside ofWyoming, coal export terminals including the Gateway Pacific project have receivedthe most attention since the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority received authorityover such projects in 2014.