Wyoming’s coal mine workforce fell by 137 employees in 2018, with the state’s coal mines producing 304 million short tons of coal, a drop of about 12 million from the previous year, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The coal sector in Wyoming is the largest in the country. Wyoming’s two largest mines alone — North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder — account for about one quarter of national production.
The coal market in the state and nationally has declined in recent years as natural gas power and, to a lesser degree, renewables have gained ground. That structural change hit a pivot point in 2015 when Wyoming’s largest producers saw a sudden decline sweep away about one quarter of the state’s annual coal production. That downturn also pared back the number of miners in the state by nearly 1,000.
Support for the coal industry from the Trump administration has led to various attempts to reduce environmental regulations that have burdened coal-fired power generation. Still, the industry continues to face market pressure.
Wyoming production and employment for 2018 represents the current normal for coal, some say.
“The overall picture is you are fairly steady, rolling with the current conditions,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. Deti said the association goes by state production and employment counts that are expected to be published soon, but he said the federal numbers, showing approximately a 3 percent decline, are what’s expected.
In 2017, the state report showed just five full-time coal mining jobs had returned following the nearly 1,000-worker drop from the downturn.
The sector is variable season by season, according to gas prices and weather. But the mines are holding a steady yearly production count right now, Deti said.
Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle mine near Wright produced 98.3 million short tons in 2018. Arch Coal’s nearby Black Thunder produced 71 million short tons for the year. North Antelope was slightly down and Arch slightly up compared to 2017.
As the largest employers, and producers, in the state, the mines’ success ripples across the data basin wide. North Antelope Rochelle had 101 fewer workers in the fourth quarter of 2018 than at the end of the previous year. Nearby Black Thunder was down 33 workers compared to the final quarter of 2017. Late in the year, Arch was expected to move about 100 miners from its smaller Coal Creek operation to Black Thunder. Such a move would leave Coal Creek with just a few dozen employees.
Wyoming newcomer Blackjewel LLC raised production at the Belle Ayr mine south of Gillette by 2.6 million short tons. Its Eagle Butte mine was 200,000 short tons down.
Cloud Peak Energy, which is facing financial pressure due to its debts, experienced production losses year over year. Its Antelope mine on the border of Campbell and Converse counties produced 28.5 million short tons in 2017 compared to 23.1 million short tons last year.
Its Cordero Rojo operations, located halfway between Wright and Gillette, cut production by about 3.8 million short tons. Cloud Peak has noted in calls with investors that it ran into weather and operational challenges last year.
Weather continues to be a significant factor in how well Wyoming mines do from one quarter to the next, Deti said, noting the line of train cars filled with coal visible up and down the highway through Powder River Basin this winter.
With a historic cold snap hitting the Midwest, the current quarter is expected to improve in Wyoming.
The Powder River Basin is flexible and can ramp up or down according to the demand from the power sector, Deti said.
“We are not building more coal-fired power plants, but when those (existing) coal plants need to ramp up, and we need to increase production, the basin is certainly able to do that,” he said.
More than half of the country’s coal mines have closed since 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration. Ten years ago the country had 1,435 active coal mines. Today there are 671. Most closures were smaller, less efficient operations in Appalachia burdened by expensive regulatory upgrades and the tightening market.
The market’s contraction has continued to pressure Wyoming’s mining sector despite the relative production stability year over year.
Westmoreland, a coal firm that operates the Kemmerer mine in Lincoln County, is progressing though bankruptcy and attempting to sell the Wyoming mine. Cloud Peak Energy is facing poor stock performance and painful debt. The company has cut into miner benefits to lighten liabilities and signaled uncertainty by hiring advisers to explore options for the company’s future, including a possible sale.
The two companies’ combined employees account for 23 percent of the Wyoming coal workforce.