Jim Bridger: Lighting the country, laboring in the dark - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Jim Bridger: Lighting the country, laboring in the dark

The Jim Bridger Power Plant in southwest Wyoming. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

September 3, 2019 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile

POINT OF ROCKS — Around 700 workers pass daily through this blink-and-you-miss-it town in southwestern Wyoming heading to shifts in the Jim Bridger Plant, the Bridger Coal Company strip mine and the state’s only underground coal mine. They come to dig and burn coal that has helped power the nation for decades.

The Point Bar behind the Conoco gas station fills with miners, engineers and camaraderie at the end of shifts before workers head home to Rock Springs or smaller nearby communities like Superior. It is one of many businesses dependent on the facility and its workers. 

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Day in, day out and in the dark of night the workers exit I-80 and drive the eight miles to the power plant and mines. There they innovate to keep a 45-year-old plant not only running but adapting. They operate massive machinery to dig 200 foot deep trenches, detonate explosives to loosen coal seams and spend days underground without seeing the sun, all with a pride that was evident on WyoFile’s visit there last week. 

But with each passing day, the plant’s eventual demise looms larger. Like coal power plants and the mines that serve them all over the country, the Jim Bridger plant faces twin threats — the inexorable senescence of its technology and the concurrent rise of renewable energy and cheap natural gas that makes reinvestment in coal plants economically unwise. 

Just south and heading east of the plant and its four smoke stacks, cranes raise a series of towers from the sagebrush prairie. The skeletal frames await transmission lines that will carry electricity from wind turbine farms the plant’s owner, utility company PacifiCorp, is building in Wyoming. In front of the plant a 345,000 volt transmission line ties into an electric grid that lights homes and businesses in Utah and Idaho, Oregon, Washington and far-northern California. A cleared patch of earth waits for the new wind power lines to arrive and tie into the electrical system, further diminishing the need for the coal plant and its 500-foot chimneys. 

For power plant engineers, the towers are a reminder that change is coming. Meanwhile, PacifiCorp and its subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power are planning their long-term resource mix — the menu of power sources from which it will serve customers in the future. The plan seems unlikely to include the hundreds of millions of dollars in updates needed to bring two of the plant’s four units in line with regulations governing haze in the air. 

But for now, the workers who have lighted much of America are in the dark about their future. PacifiCorp has remained mum, keeping its plans close to the chest even as elements of the regulated utility’s planning process play out in public

Bernie Caulfield, left, a senior engineer at the Jim Bridger Plant, speaks to two fellow workers inside the plant on Aug. 21. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson David Eskelsen demurred when asked about the specifics of Jim Bridger’s fate. “I can’t answer that because I don’t know,” he said. In the spring, an economic analysis by the company suggested it could save customers significant money by closing units 1 and 2, as well as the Naughton plant in Kemmerer, by 2022. 

After the disclosure caused worry and political outrage in Wyoming, company representatives have emphasized that other factors, like grid reliability, will play into its decisions. 

Clarity will begin to emerge in October, when the final version of the Integrated Resource Plan, the utility’s submission to its regulators, will go public. It’s possible a unit, or more, could close, Eskelsen suggested. Such was the case at the Naughton plant, which closed one of its three units in January.

On the heels of a year that saw shuttered mines in the Powder River Basin, partial plant closures and coal bankruptcies, the next shoe could drop here for Wyoming’s coal workers. 

Ultimately the determination will come down to a calculation of resource availability and prices, grid reliability and the cost to update or maintain existing infrastructure. But as Eskelsen notes, “there isn’t any power plant of any type that operates forever.”

For the utility company, itself owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, the picture is bigger than the workers in the mines and plants and the towns they live in. The company has both built plants and closed a lot of plants in its long history. 

“Bridger is a part of [the company] but not the only part of it,” Eskelsen said. 

For now, the workers continue to show up for shifts and exhaust continues to stream out of the stacks. But an undercurrent of uncertainty runs through the complex and surrounding communities about the future of their economic prospects and the industry that has long fueled Wyoming’s economy.

‘Adapt or die’

Construction of the Jim Bridger Plant began in the early ‘70s. The fourth unit came online in 1979. Since then, hundreds of workers have found employment at the complex, building lives and helping drive the regional economy of southwestern Wyoming. 

But at 40 years, the plant has already in some respects lived longer than it should.  Most coal power plants have a design life of 35-40 years, Eskelsen said.  

The plant is a soaring structure of catwalks and bays and hot, hot boilers, a big enough structure that workers move around it on tricycles with baskets to carry their tools. The plant is the center of a sprawling coal ecosystem, where workers and machines dig over and under the earth to produce the 1,100 tons of coal the plant can consume in an hour.

At full power, the plant can put out more than 2.1 million kilowatts of electricity an hour, according to a company brochure. It’s enough power to light three Salt Lake Cities, according to company literature.

The mine and plant workers spend their days retooling boilers and turbines, mining coal and filling in the trenches they dug it out of in an environmental reclamation process they’re happy to show off. For them, the big picture is a human story, not a long-range planning problem to be solved. 

Current employees’ “fathers and grandfathers have worked here,” said Bernie Caulfield, a senior engineer at the plant. Of their descendants, he said, “it’s pretty obvious they feel threatened.”

The threat hung in the air on a recent day in the power plant’s control room, away from the noise and heat of the 14-story, four-unit plant, where banks of computers give the feel of a military intelligence headquarters. Here, the plant’s masters have a constant reminder of coal’s diminished role on the nation’s electrical grid: Where they once dedicated themselves to running coal furnaces full-bore to feed power demand, now an automated system tells them how much of the plant’s product there is room and demand for on the grid. 

 “The good old days when we were actually in control?” Asked an operator who gave his name as Rod Dollar. “Oh yeah, I remember those days.”

For their new role, engineers have spent the last three years adapting the coal furnaces, designed to run at the highest levels they can, to modulate production up and down as renewable power pulses onto the grid with the fluctuation of the wind and sun.

“Adapt or die,” Dollar said, though the change clearly irks. “We used to pitch, now we catch.” 

A dragline at the Bridger Coal Mine sits idle at the end of a coal pit. These machines are used at surface coal mines to move tremendous amounts of earth. This dragline weighs 9 million pounds. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

New federal haze rules designed to restore air visibility also impact the plant’s future. Units 3 and 4 of the plant are equipped with multi-story technologies that filter nitrous oxide emissions — which reduce visibility by creating haze. Building similar technologies onto units 1 and 2 would cost an estimated $100-150 million, per unit — expensive technology for an aging plant.

So far, Eskelsen said, the plant has been able to meet the haze rules in Units 1 and 2 by controlling the temperature of the units’ coal combustion. But with time, the haze rules get increasingly strict, Eskelsen said. 

To meet the haze rules the company has proposed an alternative to installing expensive upgrades — lowering the plant’s emissions by reducing its production, a plan the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality endorsed last week. “It also allows for the company to accommodate renewables,” James Owen, environmental director for PacifiCorp, told state regulators on Aug. 23. 

A shift in the air

The future is already more certain underground. Men and machinery 700 feet beneath the earth continue to churn through a coal seam, but the miners will reach the end of their last section of underground coal in Bridger’s federal lease in December 2021. That portion of the mine employs around 130 people, according to federal data maintained by the Wyoming State Geological Survey. 

“They’re nervous,” said underground mine superintendent Bob Fox of his crew, many of whom are young men — underground mining is physically demanding. “They don’t know what the future holds, if it’s with this company or trona or what.” 

The company isn’t certain how many of those positions it will be able to put up elsewhere in the corporate family, Eskelsen said. Some miners are likely to look to Rock Spring’s trona-mining industry, Fox said.

The economic ramifications of a partial closure, or worse yet, the eventual complete shut down, of the Jim Bridger Power Plant stretch beyond the two utility-owned mines that feed the plant via a 2-mile-long conveyor belt ceaselessly rushing coal toward the four boilers. Those mines have only one customer, the plant. 

At the same time, railcars loaded with coal also arrive from the Black Butte surface mine south of I-80. Black Butte is jointly-owned by Anadarko Petroleum and Lighthouse Resources. It has produced around 2.5 million tons of coal in each of the last four years, and employed 164 people during the first quarter of 2019, according to the Wyoming State Geological Survey. 

Eskelsen and Bridger employees were reluctant to comment on how important the plant was to the Black Butte mine, saying it’s another business’s affair. But the Jim Bridger plant burns around 6 million tons of coal a year, according to Bridger Coal Company Manager of Technical Services Scott Palmer. His operation provides around 4 million tons, Palmer said. 

The other 2 million comes from Black Butte, Palmer said, suggesting the plant buys as much as four-fifths of that mine’s coal and that mine jobs there too may depend on Jim Bridger. 

And Black Butte is far from the only firm providing goods and services to Jim Bridger. Plenty of outfits depend on doing business with the plant and its mines. More still keep their doors open by trading with workers who have money in their pockets.

Threading a political needle

Wyoming residents helped pay for this plant, and will pay for whatever PacifiCorp does next — as regulated monopolies, utility companies build new infrastructure under the guarantee they will recoup their investment from electricity customers, while in turn promising to keep power reliable and rates reasonable as they turn profit for shareholders. 

State residents have benefitted too. As with the large surface mines in Campbell County, the mines at Point of Rocks generate significant tax revenue to help fund Wyoming’s public schools and services and keep taxes on the general population low. 

The utility company wants to make its plans based on technical and economic factors, but Wyoming politicians want to have their say in the matter too. Last winter, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill that could put up a hurdle to closing the plants, requiring utilities to make a “good faith” effort to sell power plants, and units of power plants, before shuttering them. Wyoming’s Public Service Commission is now working to come up with rules and regulations to enforce the complicated new law.

“We have a lot of interested parties on both sides of the energy debate telling us what they would like to see in pretty strong terms,” Eskelsen said. The utility must find a middle road based on economics and grid reliability, Eskelsen said. Pleasing everybody is likely impossible for an entity that serves both coastal states concerned about climate change and desirous of a greener grid, and coal producing states like Wyoming that will suffer job and revenue losses. 

“The people that want coal shut down tomorrow, they’re not going to get what they want,” Eskelsen said. “People who want coal to run forever, they are not going to get what they want either.”

One doesn’t have to travel far from Point of Rocks to see why politicians want to prevent plants from closing. In Rock Springs, the mayor worries about what the loss of the plant would do to his community’s economy. “One job [lost] at the plant will impact this entire community from the top down,” said Mayor Timothy Kaumo.

The smaller town of Superior, a 16-mile drive from Point of Rocks, perhaps depends even more on jobs from coal.

“Coal is what keeps everybody working,” said Walter Ray, a retiree in his early 70s who first came to Wyoming from Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Ray helped build huge draglines — machines that weigh 9 million pounds and move mountains of earth to uncover coal and then fill in the strip mines.

Most of the Superior’s working residents are plant workers, or coal miners at Bridger or Black Butte, Ray said. He spoke to WyoFile at a small park in Superior as his two grandsons played on a slide. Ray’s daughter moved back to Superior from Los Angeles with her husband, escaping high rents to raise a family. 

“It’s a good place to bring kids up,” Ray said. “It’s peaceful.”

Most businesses in the town, however, are closed. A union hall stands as a museum and a monument to the coal miners who settled the town in the 1900s, mining coal to feed the railroad. The town is indeed quiet, with few signs of life on a warm summer evening besides Ray and grandsons. Local watering hole the Horse Thief Saloon keeps irregular hours, Ray said, opening only when the owner knows enough people will drink there.

This evening did not meet the threshold. A sign hung on the window of the darkened bar: “Coal, it keeps our lights on.”

Ray moved from the plant to the surface mine in 1996, and worked there until he retired in 2013, he said. Asked about the plant’s closure, he hoped population growth, and even global warming — a concern most say is helping drive coal’s demise — might keep it running. 

“The hotter it gets, the more AC people need,” Ray said. 

“Do I look back and have any regrets?” Ray asked himself about a life in coal work. “No.” 

The retiree doesn’t see an imminent demise to Jim Bridger. “I’ll be surprised if they ever shut down in my lifetime,” he said. But he also grasped the reality of decision making beyond the control of his community. “Only PacifiCorp knows for sure what they’re going to do,” he said. 

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. contributed reporting from Rock Springs. 

This story is part of a series by WyoFile examining challenges in Wyoming’s coal industry. The full series can be seen here.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.