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Tough times for U.S. towns powered by fossil fuel energy jobs

Plummeting fuel prices are usually considered a good thing, but in rural Wyoming -- where fossil fuels like coal employ 10 percent of the state’s private sector workforce -- they can spell disaster. For the people of Gillette, dropping coal costs mean layoffs, a disappearing identity and struggles to adapt to the changing face of American industry. Special correspondent Leigh Paterson reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Hard times are hitting the energy sector in America's West. Oil and gas production are down, and in Wyoming's coal industry, three of the state's four largest producers are now in bankruptcy, leading to hundreds of layoffs.

    From Public Media's Inside Energy, Leigh Paterson reports from Gillette, Wyoming, on how the state's energy booms and busts are affecting almost everyone.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Gail Japp's horses have helped her through hard times, like when she was getting divorced.

  • GAIL JAPP, Former Peabody Energy Employee:

    When you have had a bad day, you just come out and they just make life worth going on.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Especially this one, named Money.

  • GAIL JAPP:

    He's very trusting and he's very loving.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Recently, things have been tough again. Japp was one of the nearly 500 Wyoming coal miners laid off recently. And to pay her mortgage, she will have to sell a lot of her things, including her beloved horses.

  • GAIL JAPP:

    So, I have no choice. I just — I have got to downsize. And there's a lot of stuff I'm going to have to sell.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Japp worked for Peabody Energy for over a decade, mostly massive haul trucks. After cutting jobs, including hers, in March, the coal giant declared bankruptcy in April.

  • GAIL JAPP:

    Those were so fun. Them things were just awesome.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    She misses it, and is worried about getting a new job.

  • GAIL JAPP:

    Yes, I can't leave Gillette, which is really going to make it hard for me to find something, because my dad is 90 years old, and then I got two grandkids here in town that try to stay with me as much as they can. So it's just — I don't know. It's been devastating.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    That's because prices for coal, oil, and gas are all way down, all at the same time. Revenue from those industries accounts for around 70 percent of the state's budget.

    Fossil fuels employ around 10 percent of Wyoming's private sector work force, so, an energy bust hits towns like Gillette particularly hard, because this region is rich in all three, coal, oil, and gas. Gillette even calls itself the energy capital of the nation.

    But over the past year, unemployment claims in the county have more than doubled. Businesses are closing, homes are up for sale, rail traffic is way down, and people all of the sudden are in need of basics like food.

    A line formed at this church-run food bank before the doors even opened.

  • WOMAN:

    Oh, well, this should help out a little bit.

  • WOMAN:

    Yes.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Volunteers served 110 families that day.

    Dennis Rehder is the pastor at Project I:61 Ministries. After the layoffs at the coal mines, Rehder has been expecting to see those workers at the food bank. But he says they have actually been serving a lot of people in other industries, such as oil field workers and hotel employees who have already been out of work for months.

  • DENNIS REHDER:

    What that does, it creates us to be aware that, in three months from today, those people that are living off savings or they have exhausted all their means of financial help or other community things, now they really, really need it. So it's kind of like we're a last resort.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    People all over the region are looking ahead to try and figure out what's next, like many at this meeting put on by a coal advocacy group called Friends of Coal.

  • JONATHAN DOWNING, Executive Director, Wyoming Mining Association:

    I believe in our great state. And I know that, if anybody can come through this, its going to be coal miners.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    But that won't be easy. For decades, Gillette has had a strong economy and a low unemployment rate, fueled by energy dollars and plentiful, well-paying jobs.

    The average coal miner in Wyoming makes around $83,000 a year. The average American worker makes just over half that.

    Stacey Moeller has been mining since her 20s. She says, for her, it's more than just a job.

  • STACEY MOELLER, Peabody Energy Employee:

    You know, you work at something for a long time, and it becomes such a part of you.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Losing that identity is scary. And Moeller isn't sure anything could replace coal mining in Gillette.

  • STACEY MOELLER:

    At this time, you just can't. There just isn't anything for them to go to that's comparable. What would it be? And how do we start that? And how do we get there? I don't know.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Everywhere you go in Gillette, people are thinking about these kinds of questions, like Valerie Debeau and Barbi Hays, the manager and owner of a local BAR.

  • VALERIE DEBEAU, Jake’s Tavern:

    Jake's Tavern is the working man's bar.

  • BARBI HAYS, Jake’s Tavern:

    Its like a neighborhood bar.

  • VALERIE DEBEAU:

    It's a neighborhood.

  • BARBI HAYS:

    It's like a Cheers, yes.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Recently, they have cut back on hours and stopped offering insurance to their employees.

  • VALERIE DEBEAU:

    We don't want to have to lay off anybody. So we just continue on.

  • BARBI HAYS:

    Try to cut our costs.

  • VALERIE DEBEAU:

    As much as we can.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    Debeau and Hays have seen slowdowns before, having lived in Gillette for almost 40 years. So when I asked what they're hoping for, they went back to what's always happened.

  • BARBI HAYS:

    Another boom. We want that boom.

  • VALERIE DEBEAU:

    Yes. Yes.

  • LEIGH PATERSON:

    But another coal boom is unlikely anytime soon. Coal production this year is expected to drop 16 percent, which could mean more trouble for towns like Gillette all across the country.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Leigh Paterson in Gillette, Wyoming.

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