Wyoming homes and industries are largely powered by coal, but so are a lot of other places.
Eighteen states including Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado obtained the majority of their electricity from coal power last year. That number is down from 28 states with majority coal-powered electricity 10 years ago, according to the Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that tracks and forecasts energy data.
Natural gas is the second-largest dog in the fight for the power market. It is now the largest contributor to the grid in 16 states — including California, Texas and Colorado — up from just 11 states in 2007.
Power generated in one state often turn lights on in another state, the Energy Information Administration noted in a blog post Monday.
Neither coal’s dominance, nor the rise of natural gas, is new to Wyomingites who experienced firsthand the sharp decline in the coal sector over the last few years.
Wyoming is the largest coal-producing state in the country, representing a far greater number of tons than other producers like West Virginia and Kentucky. Wyoming’s customers are power producers across the Midwest.
The thermal coal industry has shrunk as power plants shuttered and utilities are increasingly depending on either natural gas or renewables for new power generation. As hydraulic fracturing unleashed oil and gas drilling across the U.S., natural gas became an increasingly cheap option for power producers.
The Trump administration has initiated a number of discussions concerning coal’s long-term problem. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has asked the National Coal Council to develop a report looking at how to keep the current U.S. coal fleet burning. The council includes a number of coal executives including Randall Atkins, the CEO of Wyoming’s Ramaco Carbon, a firm that’s attempted to open a coal mine in Sheridan County and a coal research facility nearby. Atkins is also tied to coal firms in Appalachia.
Other attempts to stem the industry’s decline included a draft proposal from the Energy Department for the federal government to buy coal from ailing plants to keep them viable while other solutions for the industry were discussed.
Experts by and large have criticized some of these attempts. Utilities have signaled that potential coal support from federal policy changes will not change their approach. Companies like PacifiCorp — parent of Wyoming’s largest power provider, Rocky Mountain Power — have both focused on new renewable and gas generation to meet future demand and maintained fidelity to its coal fleet.
Exports are one glimmer of hope for Powder River Basin coal proponents, if the economics of transporting low energy coal to the coast and across the seas could be made to work. It’s an idea with a long history in Wyoming, but few advances. The state is currently party to a lawsuit with Washington because the West Coast state blocked an export terminal that could potentially provide Wyoming coal an avenue to new buyers.
Wyoming coal has stabilized since the downturn. The state’s coal sector produced about 316 million short tons of coal last year, up from the bottom of the bust in 2016 when the Powder River Basin’s productivity tanked to the lowest it had been in more than three decades. Current production is down one-fourth from its pre-bust norms and is mined by a workforce of about 1,000 fewer full-time miners.
The decline in coal’s prominence has helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions, nearing the target proposed in the Clean Power Plan — an Obama-era regulation to cut carbon dioxide — that many in Wyoming feared would kill the state’s coal industry.
Some, however, are arguing that coal’s decline should be sped up, given the cheaper renewable options available and concerns over greenhouse gas emissions. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, for example, has been fighting PacifiCorp to release the cost of its coal fleet in order to justify their estimates that coal is costing rate payers.