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High oil prices pressure coal production in Wyoming

As coal producers look down the barrel of the off season, there’s one threat quietly clouding their outlook: high oil prices.

One of the few saving graces for Wyoming’s economy in the last year has been the improving price of crude. From new jobs to county revenue, more drilling has been a boon for the state as it climbs out of a recession.

But it’s not only crude that comes out of the wellhead. The increase in oil production nationally means a jump in natural gas production that could keep gas prices low enough to trouble coal.

“There is just a lot of gas out there, “said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. “I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s a glut, but there is just a lot of gas on the market.”


The natural gas price at the Opal Hub in Lincoln County averaged $2.05 per million British thermal units in April compared to $2.76 last year, according to Wyoming Insight data published Monday. The national spot price, Henry Hub, averaged higher, at $2.76, a price point that is still within the range where some Wyoming coal companies can compete, Deti said.

“We always say $2.50 is our magic number,” he said. “Anything above three bucks and everyone is good.”

Producers are now facing a few months of potential doldrums before summer demand kicks in. As winter temperatures give way to spring, electricity-use declines and less coal is dug out of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Consistently low gas prices can exacerbate the pressure of the shoulder season on coal mines.

But it won’t be felt equally across the region.

Some mines are better positioned to weather price changes and seasonal demand, depending on how hot the coal produced at those mines burns, and whether they can get contracts, Deti said.

“I think our higher (British thermal unit) coal out of the basin is competitive at (these) prices,” Deti said. “It’s a little bit tougher for the lower Btu coal to compete.”

Starting off 2018, Wyoming coal mines combined produced about the same as they had in the previous year. But individual mines reported vastly different outcomes.

Arch Coal announced that it would reduce its production by 10 million tons at the Black Thunder mine, waiting for a time when it can get a higher return for that coal. Arch’s low-heat Coal Creek mine produced 35 percent less in the first three months of 2018 compared to last year. Meanwhile production at Cloud Peak’s high-Btu Spring Creek mine in Montana jumped by 16 percent and production at its Antelope mine south of Wright fell by 10 percent.

“It’s tough,” Deti said. “It’s an ebb and flow thing. We are just kind of hanging in there right now.”


Gas and coal have developed a tenuous relationship in the last decade as new drilling techniques, largely hydraulic fracturing, unleashed natural gas across the country. The cheap gas slowly eroded coal-fired power’s reputation as the cheapest and most reliable power source in the U.S.

Right now, gas production is down in Wyoming, but with firmer oil prices, it’s increased in places like Northern Colorado, Pennsylvania and the Permian Basin in West Texas, said Brian Jeffries, executive director of the Wyoming Pipeline Authority.

Like coal, natural gas producers are facing reduced demand this time of year, he said.

“You have a lot of gas chasing a finite market,” he said.

In Texas producers are facing a problem that Wyoming faced years ago. The Permian is producing so much gas the area doesn’t have enough pipelines to transport it out of Texas, he said.

Recent infrastructure built to carry Texas gas to Mexico faces a dead end as related pipelines and power plants are incomplete on the southern side, he added.

“There’s 3 billion cubic feet a day of new pipeline capacity,” he said. “But it can’t go anywhere.”

Wyoming coal producers are well aware of the volatility of their market today.

In an earnings call Thursday, Cloud Peak Energy CEO Colin Marshall noted that coal productivity responds rapidly to natural gas prices and weather. Nonetheless, coal remains one of the key fuel sources in demand, he said.

“For all the doom and gloom around coal, it’s still 30 percent (of the national electricity mix),” Marshall said. “That means they do need to buy it and they need to burn it to keep the lights and air conditioning on.”

West Casper
West Casper residents push for post office

Mailing a package or picking up a roll of stamps became more difficult for west Casper residents after a post office inside Smith’s Grocery on CY Avenue closed in January — but that might be changing.

The City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to authorize a resolution requesting that Wyoming’s federal delegation open a post office in western Casper.

“The West side branch has been closed, forcing a significant number of citizens to utilize the undersized Mills Post Office or drive a much longer distance to the main office … The City Council believes a West side post office is warranted,” it states.

David Rupert, the U.S. Postal Service spokesman for Wyoming, said Monday that the facility at Smith’s Grocery was not technically a post office. Instead, he described it as a contract postal unit, which is a supplier-owned site operated by the supplier under contract with the Postal Service.

The decision to discontinue this contract was mutual, according to Rupert.

“They wanted to use the space for other things,” he explained.

Even with this closure, the spokesman said a new post office isn’t necessary. Residents in western Casper can use the full-service post office in Mills.

“They have room for more customers and they have staff to serve more people,” said Rupert.

Mills post office employees declined to comment.

Although Rupert doesn’t think a new post office is needed, many citizens in the city’s western half disagree. West Casper resident Brian Clark went door-to-door and collected nearly 200 signatures, which he recently submitted to the city, supporting the creation of a new post office.

Clark first brought this matter to the City Council’s attention at a meeting in late March. He told Council members that the closest post office to his home is currently on Forest Drive.

“From my place that’s over 10 miles one way,” he said, adding that he believes all the city’s residents deserve to have easy access to mailing services.

Clark said he understood creating a new post office requires action from the federal government, but he asked the Council for their support.

Noting that he lives in west Casper, Vice Mayor Charlie Powell said he also used the facility on CY Avenue.

“It is inconvenient [that it closed] and that is a loss for us…” he said. “I think there’s probably a lot of people who did utilize this location.”

It’s unclear exactly how many residents live on the west side, but the City Manager’s office said 20,000 people reside in Ward II, which generally includes the neighborhoods west of Poplar Street.

Recalling that a community where he used to live in Montana once successfully rallied together to prevent a post office from closing, Councilman Jesse Morgan said he didn’t think Clark’s idea was far-fetched.

“It is possible,” he remarked.

The rest of the Council also appeared to support Clark’s proposal.

This is not the first time some west Casper residents have felt neglected. From renovating streets in the Old Yellowstone District to opening the David Street Station downtown, city officials have largely focused on revitalizing the city’s core in recent years.

“The city is so focused on the downtown area [that] people tend to forget things on the west side of town,” Todd Sheppard told the Star-Tribune in November.

Sheppard was the owner of Shifters, a restaurant on CY Avenue that opted to shut its doors last fall due to a shrinking customer base.

Israel: Iran lied about nuclear program

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister on Monday unveiled what he said was a “half ton” of Iranian nuclear documents collected by Israeli intelligence, claiming it proved that Iranian leaders covered up a nuclear weapons program before signing a deal with world powers in 2015.

In a speech delivered in English and relying on his trademark use of visual aids, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed the material showed that Iran cannot be trusted, and encouraged President Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal next month.

“Iran lied big time,” Netanyahu declared.

In Washington, Trump said it vindicated his past criticism of the nuclear deal.

Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the “information provides new and compelling details about Iran’s efforts to develop missile-deliverable nuclear weapons.”

But Netanyahu’s presentation, delivered on live TV from Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, did not appear to provide evidence that Iran has violated the 2015 deal, raising questions about whether it would sway international opinion ahead of Trump’s decision.

The U.S.-led agreement offered Iran relief from crippling sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Netanyahu furiously fought the deal while President Barack Obama was negotiating it, and he has been a leading critic since it was signed. He says it does not provide sufficient safeguards to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capability.

Netanyahu has found a welcome partner in Trump, who has called the agreement “the worst deal ever.”

Trump has signaled he will pull out of the agreement by May 12 unless it is revised, but he faces intense pressure from European allies not to do so. Netanyahu said he already has given the information to the U.S., and he plans to share it with Western allies and the international nuclear agency.

Ahead of the announcement, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, belittled Netanyahu in a tweet, saying: “The boy who can’t stop crying wolf is at it again.”

He later tweeted: “Pres. Trump is jumping on a rehash of old allegations already dealt with by the IAEA to ‘nix’ the deal. How convenient. Coordinated timing of alleged intelligence revelations by the boy who cries wolf just days before May 12. But Trump’s impetuousness to celebrate blew the cover.”

Iran’s deputy foreign minister and senior nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, called Netanyahu’s presentation “childish and ridiculous” and said the purported evidence was “fake and fabricated.”

Iran has denied ever seeking nuclear weapons.

The exchange ratcheted up already heightened tensions between Israel and Iran. Israel considers Iran to be its biggest threat, citing Tehran’s hostile rhetoric, support for militants and growing influence in the region.

Israel has said it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in neighboring Syria, where Iran supports President Bashar Assad.

In his presentation, Netanyahu said Israel had obtained some 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs of secret information from an Iranian nuclear weapons program called “Project Amad.” He said the material was gathered from a facility in the Tehran neighborhood of Shourabad a few weeks ago “in a great intelligence achievement.”

He said the uncovered filed included “incriminating” documents, charts, blueprints, photos and videos. He pointed to one presentation that allegedly called for producing and testing five warheads.

The authenticity of the documents could not be verified, and it was not clear whether they shed any new light on what international inspectors already have concluded. The documents appeared to date back to the early 2000s, when international inspectors already believe Iran was pursuing a weapons program.

A 2015 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, for example, concluded that Iran “conducted computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device” before 2005 and between 2005 and 2009. It said, however, that those calculations were “incomplete and fragmented.”

Netanyahu provided no direct evidence that Iran has violated the 2015 deal. But he said the existence of the documents proves Iran is waiting to resume its race to build a bomb.

“We can now prove that Project Amad was a comprehensive program to design, build and test nuclear weapons,” he said. “We can also prove that Iran is secretly storing Project Amad material to use at a time of its choice to develop nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu said the material proves the international nuclear deal is a failure. He said it allows Iran to continue enriching some uranium, and does not address its research efforts or development of long-range ballistic missiles.

He noted that Trump was weighing whether to pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, saying “I am sure he will do the right thing.”

Trump has set a May 12 deadline to decide whether to pull out of the Iran deal — something he appears likely to do despite heavy pressure to stay in from European allies and other parties.

Netanyahu’s office later issued a statement saying the prime minister had spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and agreed to share the intelligence with them. He also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the findings.

Democratic challenger to Cheney emerges in Wyoming U.S. House race

Laramie attorney and candidate for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat Travis Helm said he’s always been interested in politics.

“Going back to being a kid, no one would have been surprised at me running for political office,” Helm said. “Of course, at that point they’d have expected me to be running as a Republican.”

It’s not just that the Rawlins-native was raised in a Republican family. Helm said he wrote middle school essays praising President George H.W. Bush and “predicting the greatness of the coming Quayle administration.” He wore Rush Limbaugh T-shirts to high school.

But the Iraq War spoiled Helm on the Republican Party and he became involved with the Wyoming Democratic Party in 2014 when he volunteered on Pete Gosar’s unsuccessful run against Gov. Matt Mead.

Now Helm is gearing up to challenge another incumbent Republican for statewide office, Rep. Liz Cheney, who is nearing the end of her first term in office. Helm, who specialized in immigration law, announced his candidacy at the Albany County Democratic Party convention in Laramie two weeks ago. He is the only Democrat in the race.

“There’s a lot of people who feel like someone with Wyoming credentials who was born and raised in Wyoming should be repping us in D.C.,” Helm said in a not-too-subtle dig at Cheney, who despite her family’s roots in the state, was born in Wisconsin and has largely lived outside of Wyoming.

Helm said his campaign will focus on maintaining access to public lands and improving health care. He supports the concept of a nationwide single-payer option, similar to the Medicare for All legislation being promoted by Bernie Sanders, and believes the Legislature should expand Medicaid.

“People can’t afford insurance here,” Helm said. “We’re one of the least affordable states for insurance.”

Helm said immigration reform is also one of his priorities. After graduating from the University of Wyoming law school and realizing there were few immigration lawyers in the state, Helm opened a firm of his own in Laramie. He said he has seen the effect that poor immigration policy has on families in Wyoming that are composed of both American citizens and undocumented immigrants.

“I have issues with the way a lot of laws are being interpreted and enforced and the impact it’s having on U.S. families — even if we want to discount the humanity of these individuals who are immigrants,” Helm said.

He specifically pointed to a Clinton-era law that imposes a 10-year ban on individuals who have entered United States illegally if they leave the country. Helm said that effectively stops undocumented immigrants from applying for legal status and incentivizes them to stay in the country illegally.

“It’s just locking people in here and it’s not allowing people who want to get right to get right,” he said.

Helm said he has traveled to Washington, D.C., and lobbied Wyoming’s U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi on immigration reform through the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

According to his website biography, Helm worked with the International Human Rights Clinic and ACLU of Wyoming during law school to allow recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in the state to sit for driver’s license exams.

Helm, who worked at the Sinclair refinery near Rawlins before law school, said he also wants to help boost tourism in Wyoming and diversify the state’s economy.

Cheney cruised to an easy victory over Democratic challenger Ryan Greene in 2016, after the seat was vacated by Republican Cynthia Lummis. A Democrat has not been elected to the U.S. House from Wyoming since 1976.

Republican Rod Miller is running against Cheney in the GOP primary.