Wyoming mines produced about 9 percent less coal in 2012, according to preliminary numbers released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The EIA, a research and statistical arm of the Department of Energy, issued its final weekly coal production report of 2012 on Friday. The report includes production figures through Dec. 29, meaning only two days are yet to be included in the 2012 year-to-date production totals.
Mines in the state produced an estimated 398 million tons in 2012, compared to 436 million tons in 2011. Nationwide, coal production dropped about 7 percent, to 1.02 billion tons.
The low numbers are the result of sagging natural gas prices, a mild winter and stricter regulations on coal-burning power plants, according to industry officials and advocates. Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said Friday's report presented no surprises.
"We’ve seen those numbers all year long," he said. "That’s about what you could make an assumption on a number of months ago."
Several companies with major coal operations in Wyoming said on Friday that 2012 was a long year, although none could yet offer specific production data. Karla Kimrey, Cloud Peak Energy's vice president of investor relations, estimated that her company shipped about 5 percent less coal than in 2011.
Loomis and company representatives cited unusual weather -- and, therefore, less demand for heat and electricity -- as a contributor to reduced production, both in Wyoming and nationwide.
Kimrey said, "2012 was kind of an anomaly because you had no winter. That’s what we experienced across the country."
Kimrey added that the lowered demand, when coupled with low natural gas prices, could lead more utilities to drop coal and start burning natural gas -- a trend already catching on in some places.
"I think 2013’s going to be a difficult year," he said. "Until the economy recovers and we start to see some growth, any increased (electricity) demand is probably going to be met with natural gas."
Loomis said another obstacle in coal's way is increasingly strict emissions regulations placed on power plants.
"That will certainly impact our ability to expand production," he said. "We'll have to see how that shakes out in the coming months."
Renny MacKay, communications director for Gov. Matt Mead, said via email Friday that Mead will continue to support new coal technologies and will oppose "unreasonable" regulations.
But if the price of natural gas does go up and the country sees a more typical winter, demand and price could rebound. Kim Link, a spokeswoman for Arch Coal, said in an email Friday that her company expects some improvement in demand this year.
In the meantime, Link said Arch Coal has taken several cost-cutting measures to combat the weak market, including idling equipment, reducing overtime and contracted positions, and increasing efficiency. The company also reduced production at several U.S. operations to keep up with lowered demand.
Representatives from Peabody Energy declined comment Friday. A representative from Alpha Natural Resources could not be reached.
Loomis said companies have told him lately that 2012's fourth quarter was better than the rest of the year, a positive sign moving forward. But even with the lower numbers, Wyoming still produced more coal than any other state in the union, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the nation's total.
"We’re still producing about 400 million tons of coal. That’s a lot of coal," he said. "And we’ll continue to produce a lot of coal. We’re not going away."