Wyoming coal production slipped slightly in 2011 but employment climbed at the mines, according to numbers collected by federal regulators.
Companies produced 438.5 million tons of Wyoming coal in 2011, down just more than 4 million tons from 2010, or less than 1 percent, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Jobs at the state’s coal mines edged up slightly to 7,051 — adding 187 positions from 2010. Employment at 12 of Wyoming’s 18 active coal mines held steady or added workers to 2010 payrolls.
“It held up pretty well for the last year,” said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, a trade association for mining firms in the state, referring to both production and job totals.
Wyoming is the nation’s top coal-producing state. Eight of the 10 largest mines in terms of production are located in the state. Wyoming produces as much coal as the next seven producing states combined.
The 12 active mines in the Powder River Basin produced 426.1 million tons of coal in 2011, down 2.4 million tons from the previous year.
Mines in Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin produce the vast majority of the state’s coal and employ six out of seven employees at the state’s coal mines.
Wyoming coal production was strong in 2011 despite a wet spring and Midwest flood disruptions of rail traffic, said executives from Peabody Energy, Cloud Peak Energy and Arch Coal, who together mine the majority of coal in the basin.
“In particular, our Powder River Basin operations rebounded from flood-related disruptions earlier this year,” said Steven Leer, Arch’s chairman and chief executive officer, in an early February earnings announcement. St. Louis-based Arch operates the Black Thunder Mine and Coal Creek Mine in the basin, which together produced 115 million tons last year.
Wyoming’s steady year was also due to the strength of contracts covering all of the year’s coal production, at prices far better than the spot price of between $8 to $9 in early March.
“The last sale was that we made was at $15 and we’re sold out,” said Richard Navarre, president and chief commercial officer of St. Louis-based Peabody, in a late January conference call to discuss earnings with analysts. “So, rather be lucky than good at this point in time.”
Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine in the southern part of the basin in southern Campbell County produced the most coal of any mine in Wyoming last year — 109.1 million tons.
The mine hosted the largest production boost in 2011, mining 3.31 million additional tons, and added 51 jobs to its 1,251-worker payroll in 2010.
Peabody’s Rawhide Mine in the basin had the biggest rise in production, jumping 34 percent from 2010 to just more than 15 million tons.
The mine also had the largest percentage increase in employees, adding 43 to its 180-worker payroll in 2010.
While Wyoming coal production slid in 2011, overall production in the United States climbed last year for the second year in a row, according to the U.S. Energy information Administration.
Last year’s U.S. coal production peaked at 1.08 billion tons, marginally up from the previous year.
Low-sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin is predominately used by utilities to generate electricity because burning it produces fewer emissions than coal from elsewhere in the U.S.
“However, the decline in Western coal output mirrored the drop in electricity generation from coal, as utilities switched to more affordable natural gas to fuel their power plants,” said the EIA, in a mid-February analysis of coal production and consumption.
The EIA estimated 4 percent of coal-fired electrical generation was switched to natural gas last year because of low natural gas prices.