Since the beginning of the industrial age, and still in many places around the world, people have been scurrying into the earth, picks in hand, deepening subterranean trails in search of coal. There is no such intimacy to the transaction here, where the luscious seams run just below the surface. Big machines—backhoes and bulldozers, dump trucks and cranes—create canyons that together sprawl wider than many modern cities. As dirt is dug at one end of a canyon, more is backfilled at the other, so that over time the canyons actually move, roaming across the prairie like open-mouthed amoebae. Down in the pit, the tallest of the machines, the dragline, swings its long arm with scoop after scoop, clearing the way to the reward. But the ground doesn’t always move easily. And often, before the machines are put in place to do the job, explosives send the bottom deeper still. The goal is to blast away overburden, the rock and dirt that covers the coal.
With an explosion, nitrogen dioxide can be released into the air. A little dose can make eyes itch and mucous run. Breathe in too much of the gas, and the respiratory system can fail, causing death.
One hot afternoon, an explosion below sent a brown-and-orange cloud climbing into the air, shifting shapes as it moved with the wind southward. Just beyond the edge of the canyon, a cluster of buildings served as outpost for a groundbreaking company. The place appeared to be abandoned—for the moment, at least. Nobody was inside the office trailer or the break room or the big building out back where crews fix trucks and tools. Just outside the entrance, there lay on the road a wrench, as though it were a forgotten relic of a civilization extinct from its own experiments. I was tempted to pick it up. But I had a long walk ahead of me, and in the heat even such a simple thing seemed too much to carry.
In the full light of day, the antelope braces and lets out a rough bark, a short snort that carries only slightly into the wind before fading. The animal takes a few quick steps, its feet accelerating toward a gallop, then just as quickly stands stock-still—neck craned, eyes darting above grass near the edge of an open-pit mine. Since the 1970s, Powder River Basin coal mines have expanded as a fuel box for America, and industry has upended much of the rolling grasslands here. Fewer sage grouse puff their feathers than before. But on swaths of land between asphalt roads and canyons where coal has been extracted, cottontail rabbits still sprint among sage bushes. Rattlesnakes lie in wait for voles to emerge from their holes. Buntings and meadowlarks call as they dart above a still-water creek.
By day, a sense of calm settles along the edge of the chaos, like a buffer zone near the front lines of war—animals seizing their chance to recover. Black-tailed prairie dogs shriek from their positions, sentinels on soft mounds. From beneath a bridge, swallows rise into blue sky, swooping and squeaking.
As twilight deepens, the sun sliding long and low into the spring sky, the scale shifts and wildlife seems, if only briefly, to be reclaiming control. Coyotes yelp on the opposite side of the creek bed. A mountain lion stalks somewhere beyond.
But after darkness has descended, complete, the engines of idling trains huff a warning, and steel wheels, quiet on the rails until the call comes for another delivery, roll again.
When a train first edges forward, the couplings click in a cascade that surfs to the last car and back again. As the train gains speed, the clicks crescendo and the cars join in singular movement, snaking through shallow valleys and into the open grasslands.
Everything here is carefully orchestrated so that the crushed coal can be hauled round-the-clock to power plants in Georgia and Colorado, Minnesota and Texas. Roughly 100 trains depart daily, each pulling more than 100 cars loaded with tons of coal. The train conductors shuttle between small-town motels across America to keep the fuel moving.
And yet Wyoming’s Powder River Basin may be as good a place as any to begin to stop the carbon harvest. The system has already begun to shift. Natural gas increasingly fuels power plants. The federal government has issued a temporary ban on new coal-mine leases. Wall Street bankers have lost confidence that profits will keep coming, and big coal companies have filed for bankruptcy.
The holes have been dug deep, and it will take twenty years, at least, before the mining in northeastern Wyoming begins to slow, if even then. So the coal trains remain as much a part of the place as the antelope bowing in search of fresh forage, or the meadowlarks resting at creek’s edge. Occasionally, though, come signs. One spring morning, near the largest mine, I saw a northbound train pulling not the tall hoppers with their tidy caps of coal, but flatbeds, each one carrying an enormous, white blade of a wind turbine. I watched the train pass, the blades drawing a strong bright line toward the horizon.