The coal mines were called “crown jewels” just two years ago, when the bankrupt company that owned Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr sold them to Contura Energy. The Campbell County mines continued to produce coal and their workers continued showing up for shifts as leases and permits passed to the new firm.
When Contura announced in December that it was unloading those crown jewels so it could focus on Appalachian coal operations that are making more money, the sale raised a question in Wyoming coal country: are those Powder River Basin assets less valuable than they used to be?
Details of the transaction in Contura’s financial reports released last week show that Contura paid Blackjewel Inc. $21 million as part of the deal. The money is for taxes owed in Wyoming, according to the companies. Blackjewel picked up these two mines for nothing more than a promise of royalty payments back to Contura and an assumption of millions in clean-up costs.
Some say the deal heralds bad days to come for low-heat mines like Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr. Others are more diplomatic about the challenges for Wyoming coal, but agree that the sale is telling of how the sector has changed in a few short years.
Contura laid down more than $20 million as part of a deal for Blackjewel Inc. to take the two Wyoming mines. It was money that Contura owes in Wyoming in taxes for production. Instead of carrying on with that debt, some of which is not yet due, they are handing the money to Blackjewel and washing their hands of it. A small portion of the $20 million is for professional transaction fees.
Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops said it was an error to characterize the $20 million as a payment for the mines.
“Blackjewel received no direct benefit from that payment,” he said.
In short, the money is owed in Wyoming, a cost Blackjewel promises to pay, but that Contura is effectively paying.
The Campbell County treasurer’s office said Contura does not owe the county any back taxes currently, though Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr’s former owner does. The state, likewise, is not missing money from Contura.
Hoops said the money is for past production taxes that have not yet come due.
Between Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, Blackjewel is also taking over a reclamation liability of $254 million, according to state records.
That transfer is still ongoing and Contura is still currently liable in Wyoming.
Blackjewel was delayed in obtaining leases from Contura because Hoops, the CEO, was party to unaddressed environmental violations for coal mines in Appalachia. The severity of those outstanding violations was reduced after action from Hoops. The company is currently working out the transfer of permits, which includes securing financial sureties for the $254 million in cleanup costs.
When Contura announced the sale, its leaders praised the value of the Wyoming mines it was leaving behind.
“While these PRB thermal assets will not be part of our company’s operational strategy moving forward, the purchaser is acquiring two solid mines with decades of minable reserves, a top-notch, professional workforce and a great operating track record,” said CEO Kevin Crutchfield at the time.
Hoops did not respond to questions about what the sale of Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr for next to nothing says about the mines’ relative value.
In earlier statements to the Star-Tribune, he said his company was primarily a metallurgical firm — referring to a high value coal that is not produced in the Cowboy State — but he remained optimistic about Wyoming coal. The firm had pulled in marketing partners and was focusing on the potential for thermal coal in international markets.
Seaborne coal is a muse that Wyoming has chased for years, and though only one coal firm in Wyoming taps that market currently, potential buyers across the sea have begun to dominate political claims about U.S. coal.
President Donald Trump campaigned on saving coal. Since his presidency began, political support for the industry has shifted from ending what supporters called a “war on coal” to finding solutions to coal’s current market troubles.
One of those solutions cropping up is the idea of sending Wyoming coal to Asia.
In a recent interview at Black Thunder mine near Wright, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt touted the international market for coal. The interview came a few days after the EPA held a meeting on eliminating the Clean Power Plan, an emissions-cutting regulation that experts said could take a sizeable bite out of Wyoming’s coal economy.
Others are keeping their eyes closer to the ground, tracking the coal sector as it emerges from the downturn.
“The overall market has obviously shrunk from the top end on an annual basis,” said Jim Thompson, an expert on the U.S. coal sector for IHS Markit. “Less coal has been produced, less coal has been consumed.”
Around 2015, signs of distress from indebted coal companies heralded the tough two-year period from which Wyoming’s coal industry has only recently emerged. Companies were heavily indebted due to misplaced faith in Chinese demand for metallurgical coal. A number of mild winters meant less coal was needed to heat homes. Worst of all, the sustained low price of natural gas was taking its toll, stealing away the coal industry’s former dominance of the electricity sector.
The perfect storm hit firms like Alpha Natural Resources, who owned the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines, and the company sold them to Contura as part of their exit from bankruptcy.
But it appears that as the market has contracted, it’s challenging some mines more than others. Lower-heat coal produced at Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, around 8,400 British thermal units, is less attractive than the 8,800 Btu coal in neighboring mines.
“It’s not like there’s no role at all (for 8,400 Btu coal), but it’s a smaller market,” said Thompson, from IHS. “The 8,800 are able to control the game a little bit more.”
For some, the entrance of Blackjewel to the Powder River Basin is a sign that the shifting market for low-heat coal will get worse.
Clark Williams Derry of Sightline, a think tank advocating a transition to cleaner energy, said he agreed there is still a market niche for 8,400 Btu coal to fill.
The question is how much of that coal has a place, and at what price, he said.
There are quite a few mines competing for limited demand. What the low-heat side of the industry is waiting for is for one of the mines to be idled, opening up more elbow room for the ones left behind, Williams-Derry said.
“Everybody is just waiting for it to be somebody else,” he said.
Some of the larger mine companies, like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, are better placed to take the cost of an idled mine and the reclamation liabilities that follow. But they are also the ones able to hold out the longest in a shrinking market, he said.
The Contura sale of these mines is evidence to how far the value of these low-heat mines has fallen, Williams-Derry argues.
“I think what it does suggest is that Contura was happy to wash its hands and just walk away,” Williams-Derry said. “The fact that Blackjewel would be able to get hold of major mines, nothing out of pocket, speaks volumes to how weak the business is moving forward.”
The longest recorded migratory mule deer herd in the world travels about a 150 miles from the Red Desert in southwest Wyoming to a place called the Hoback.
Discovered in 2012, the route garnered national attention and inspired countless discussions about its protection. It was an example of something infinitely impressive: the longest mule deer migration trekking unnoticed in Wyoming’s backyard.
Longest until now, anyway.
In 2016, researchers with the University of Wyoming placed 40 collars on deer in the Red Desert and then watched as the animals wandered their way through greener grass.
Most of them stopped in the northwest corner of the state until cooler weather and snow would push them back down to the desert.
Except one deer. Doe number 255 – as named by her GPS — didn’t stop in the gentle valleys of the Hoback. She continued north, climbing up and over the Gros Ventre Range, dropping down into Jackson Hole, walking around Jackson Lake and up and over the foothills of the Tetons, sliding west into Idaho and ultimately landing in the relatively lush region of Island Park, Idaho.
Biologists watched in awe at her progress, wondering where she was headed and if she would come back.
Then her collar died.
She had traveled almost 250 miles, said Matt Kauffman, leader of the Wyoming Migration Initiative and the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the University of Wyoming.
“It’s really pretty impressive. For a lot of animal movements, we look at them on the map and think about the elevations, but this would be an all-day trip in a car,” Kauffman said. “In a car you’re moving across paved roads with a combustion engine.”
But without more data, only questions remained: Would she return to her winter range in the Red Desert? Did she connect with another herd in Idaho — a rarity, but a possible option? Was it an isolated incident, or is there a group of deer that follows that same path, blowing the previous longest-migratory herd out of the record books?
If she did return to Wyoming, if she and others followed that same route each year, it would further emphasize not only a mule deer’s incredible fidelity to its annual migration pathway, but also just how many different ways the West’s big game herds move to make a living.
Even before Wyoming biologist Hall Sawyer discovered the mule deer migration from the Red Desert to the Hoback, wildlife experts knew these deer moved.
“We suspected years and years ago in the stone age of wildlife management, before we had GPS and things. We knew they crossed Highway 28 and went somewhere,” said Mark Zornes, wildlife supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Green River region and a collaborator on the project. “But we had no idea where they went.”
The deer may have stopped in the southern Wind River Range, or perhaps traveled a little farther, Zornes said, but from there they could only guess.
What biologists discovered through more than a hundred GPS collars on the Red Desert to Hoback deer, was that 500 to 1,000 deer traveled into the western side of the Winds where they merged with another 4,000 deer. That group then wandered through the Green River Basin into the Hoback.
All or portions of the 150-mile route supports life for thousands of mule deer. Without those various pathways, the herds would be substantially smaller, Kauffman said. Migration routes allow deer – as well as other big game such as elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep – to take advantage of spring and summer forage. It’s a frequent enough event it’s been coined the green wave.
So then why do some move only 10 to 15 miles all year and others go more than 100?
To spread out the pressure on any one area, Kauffman said, ultimately boosting, and maintaining, large herd sizes.
“There’s all these different herds around the greater Yellowstone area that have figured out how to make a living on these big landscapes, which always entails wintering somewhere low and summering someplace high in the mountains where it’s really productive. And that’s their general recipe,” Kauffman said.
“It’s like a stock portfolio for the herd. You have lots of animals that go places and they can experience different climates. Some will experience a harsh winter, some a mild winter, so from a herd prospective, having a diversity of migratory strategies are like having funds in many different stocks.”
For almost two years, Kauffman and other biologists wondered where deer 255 ended up.
Not only did her collar stop pinging off of a satellite, it also wouldn’t send signals to a plane flying over with an antennae. She was gone.
Her 242-mile path would go down in the record books as a potential anomaly, something they couldn’t explain or use to draw conclusions because of lack of data.
In mid-March, two years after her first capture, crews with Game and Fish and the Migration Initiative began yet another capture of does in the Red Desert.
A “mugger,” as they’re called, hung out the window of a helicopter and shot nets at targeted deer. Biologists then tested the deer for body fat and pregnancy, secured a GPS collar around their necks and released them back on their range.
The information, now gathered from about 100 deer, gives experts a look at changing body types and conditions as well as pregnancy rates and their migration patterns.
Kauffman asked the pilot to try and capture any deer with brown collars, ones they’d used in the past.
On March 12, a graduate student on the project realized the serial number on an animal they caught with an old brown collar was deer 255.
She had come back.
“We now know it wasn’t a fluke, she wasn’t dispersing into a different herd,” Kauffman said. “It was her migration.”
And if it is an established route, that means more travel the same one.
The news comes at the same time as a recent paper published in the journal Ecosphere used years of data to outline the impact of residential and energy development on mule deer.
Deer won’t change their routes significantly for minor development. They learn where to go from their moms, who learn it from their moms, and they stick with them.
But they will travel through quicker, not stopping at places long enough to become properly replenished. As the paper’s abstract says: “This work adds to a growing number of studies indicating that development can disrupt migratory behavior.”
Any new development put in the wrong place can disrupt the journeys of deer like 255 but also the tens of thousands of animals that trace at least part of her steps.
Agencies are working toward more protections for the routes. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released a migration order earlier this year that many at least say brings attention to the issue.
The Wyoming Legislature passed a bill recently allowing the state to sell wildlife license plates with the proceeds going to prevent highway deaths with safeguards like over and underpasses and fencing.
But before the underpasses, fences and maps, wildlife and land managers have to know where the deer travel.
With each new discovery, whether it’s the Red Desert to Hoback or the saga of deer 255, researchers are one step closer to protecting herds that draw hunters and wildlife viewers from around the world.
Deer 255 has a new collar now. It pings her location every two hours. On Thursday, she was making her way north through the Red Desert, between Steamboat Mountain and Highway 28.
While researchers like Kauffman, Zornes and Sawyer were amazed by the doe’s journey – and the likelihood that others travel the same way with her – it also reminds them of what routes have likely been lost already to development. It also tells them what should be done in the future.
“I just hope we’re smarter about when we need to build infrastructure, when we need to build fencing, when we need to extract resources, whatever, that we’re smarter about where that activity happens and what it looks like,” Zornes said. “We’re spoiled rotten and lucky we have what we have, and we have to be wise in our selection of what we build.”
MUENSTER, Germany — A van crashed into people drinking outside a popular bar Saturday in the German city of Muenster, killing two people and injuring 20 others before the driver of the vehicle shot and killed himself inside it, police said.
A top German security official said there was no indication of an Islamic extremist motive but officials were investigating all possibilities in the deadly crash that took place at 3:27 p.m. on a warm spring day.
Witnesses said people ran away screaming from the city square after the crash. Police quickly set up a large cordoned-off area for their investigation and ambulances rushed to the site.
Six of the 20 injured were in severe condition, according to police spokesman Andreas Bode.
Herbert Reul, the interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, where Muenster is located, said the driver of the gray van was a German citizen. He stressed that the investigation was at an early stage but said “at the moment, nothing speaks for there being any Islamist background.”
“We have to wait, and we are investigating in all directions,” Reul said, adding that it was clearly not an accident.
Reul said two people were killed in the crash and the driver killed himself — lower than the earlier police toll of three dead plus the driver.
Police spokesman Peter Nuessmeyer told The Associated Press that he could not confirm German media reports that the perpetrator reportedly had psychological issues.
Bode told reporters that police were checking witness reports that other perpetrators might have fled from the van at the scene. Hours later, police spokeswoman Vanessa Arlt said “we didn’t find anything (to those reports) but we’re still investigating in all directions and not excluding anything.”
Police tweeted that residents should “avoid the area near the Kiepenkerl pub” in the city’s historic downtown area where a large-scale police operation was underway.
Police also said they found a suspicious object in the van that they were examining to see if it was dangerous. They told German news agency dpa that was the reason authorities cordoned off such a large area.
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper said the suspect’s apartment was being searched Saturday night for possible explosives.
The Muenster University Hospital put out an urgent call for citizens to donate blood — and so many people rushed to help that long lines of donors formed. Jan Schoessler, who was among those in line, said dozens of people were waiting shortly after doors opened at 7 p.m.
The university canceled the call after only an hour and thanked everyone on Twitter “for your overwhelming support.”
Muenster, a major university city, has about 300,000 residents and an attractive medieval city center that was rebuilt after World War II. TV footage showed a narrow street sealed off Saturday with red-and-white police tape. Dozens of ambulances were near the cordoned-off area and helicopters were flying overhead.
The Kiepenkerl is not only one of the city’s best-known traditional pubs, but also the emblem of the city, depicting a traveling salesman with a long pipe in his mouth and a big backpack on his back.
Ugur Hur was working at a nearby cafe in downtown Muenster when the crash took place.
“I heard a loud bang, screaming. And the police arrived and everyone was sent out,” he said. “A lot of people were running away screaming.”
Lino Baldi, who owns an Italian restaurant near the scene of the crash, told Sky TG24 that the city center had been packed with people out enjoying a Saturday market and summer-like temperatures, which had risen to 77 degrees Fahrenheit from just 54 degrees F a day earlier.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “deeply shocked by the terrible events in Muenster.”
“Everything conceivable is being done to investigate the crime and to support the victims and their relatives,” Merkel said in a statement. “My thanks go to all the responders at the scene.”