Wyoming lost 153 jobs at its coal mines last year, further distancing the sector’s employment numbers from pre-bust highs, according to the state mining inspector’s yearly tally of employment and production.
Wyoming’s annual mining report counted 5,534 employees at the state’s 16 mines at the end of 2018. The numerous contract positions associated with the coal industry in Wyoming remained relatively unchanged, with a loss of just 12 jobs.
The state’s coal production also declined by about 12.5 million tons, according to the report.
Coal’s dramatic decline in 2015 and 2016 rocked Wyoming’s economy. Coal production fell by one-fourth of its more than 400-million-ton norm, and about 1,000 jobs were eliminated. The losses ate into state revenue for schools and services and touched off a local crisis of unemployment and uncertainty in Campbell County.
Jobs and production in Wyoming have stabilized post-downturn at a lower level than before. Improvements have been minimal. Between 2017 and 2018, the sector gained just five full-time coal jobs at Wyoming mines.
Coal employment became a central focus of the campaign of President Donald Trump, who promised to end the “war on coal” and reverse the industry’s recent losses. The administration has worked to roll back regulations damaging coal’s outlook, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and Mercury and Air Toxics rule.
Though uncertainty over coal regulations persists — particularly how the EPA will fulfill a court mandate to regulate carbon dioxide pollution — the removal of the Clean Power Plan may have offered some breathing room.
Experts note that the Powder River Basin coal sector may experience continued declines without the existence of a new market, like exports to the West Coast. The effect of plant closures on the sector — narrowing the number of customers for Wyoming coal — has largely been felt and accounted for, some note. Short-term relief, like seasonally high natural gas prices, cannot undo the fact that newer natural gas-fired power plants have already taken part of coal’s market share and led to coal plant closures.
A recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a left-leaning think tank advocating for a transition away from fossil fuels, notes that the Powder River Basin is uniquely vulnerable to continued declines in the nation’s coal market. The basin provided about 43 percent of nation’s coal last year.
Lower-heat coal mines in particular are noted as being in a difficult position. Those lying in the middle of the Powder River Basin have relatively low costs but produce coal that sells for less money.
Production in Wyoming was down just 12 million tons in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the state mining report. But those losses are likely to continue, at least at the largest mines.
The best assets in Wyoming’s basin, sitting near the Converse County line close to Wright, are likely to drop production in the coming year, according to finance reports submitted by the large publicly traded companies operating in the state.
Meanwhile, one of Wyoming’s largest producers, Cloud Peak Energy, faces uncertainty in the year ahead. Cloud Peak was suspended from trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday due to sustained low stock value. The firm has hired advisers to contemplate a potential sale or bankruptcy filing.
Cloud Peak employs about 20 percent of the miners in the Powder River Basin.
A call to the Wyoming Mining Association was not immediately returned Wednesday.