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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Robert Leman lays out a table clothe as he and others at the Iris Clubhouse set up for lunch Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

New Year's Eve snowstorm closes Wyoming highways, mines

A light, powdery snow blew across Casper in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, closing highways across Wyoming and snowing in some miners in the Powder River Basin.

Interstate 25 from Casper to Buffalo was closed due to the storm until midday and remained hazardous throughout the afternoon, as did many roads in and out of coal country.

Interstate 90 between Buffalo and Gillette and Highway 59 connecting Douglas and Wright were reopened by Monday afternoon but still carried no unnecessary travel warnings. Highway 387 from Midwest to Wright remained shut down, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

Wyoming’s largest coal mine, Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle mine, implemented a winter contingency plan. The night shift employees remained on site awaiting the re-opening of the roads, Charlene Murdock, a spokeswoman for Peabody, said Monday afternoon. The company planned to resume operations when the roads surrounding the mine outside of Wright were deemed safe to travel by state authorities, she said.

Other large mining companies in the basin did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Main thoroughfares in much of the northeast were closed after the storm, with hazardous conditions like black ice prompting warnings of no unnecessary travel on many state highways into Monday afternoon.

But while the region east of the Bighorn Mountains and north of Casper had the most road closures, byways across Wyoming were also marked with warnings against travel throughout the day, from Albany County to Uinta County.

“It’s not a big deal as far as being a winter storm. We’ve had bigger,” said Jeff Goetz, spokesman for WYDOT. “It impacted the roads because it came down pretty fast.”

The snow was also light and powdery, easily picked up and tossed across the highway cutting visibility, he said.

Because of the cold temperatures — it was 5 degrees at noon Monday — traffic was less likely to pack the snow into ice, he said.

“It’s just too cold for that,” Goetz said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not slick underneath that powdery snow.”

WYDOT has about 15 plows in the Casper region, clearing highways up to Midwest, south to Alcova and east and west of town. But with the snowfall occurring rapidly overnight, those roads couldn’t all be sanded and plowed before Monday morning commutes.

“It will take them a while once that storm really hits, especially in the middle of the night, to get out there,” Goetz said. “There is a fair amount of snow out there blowing and drifting. We don’t need people out there going into ditches. We want them to be safe.”

Central Wyoming has not yet experienced a barrage of heavy snow storms this year. Though the snowpack is a little behind schedule, so far the winter has been “fairly normal,” said Micah Hulme, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Riverton.

The snowstorm started in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, the result of a Pacific system from the west that provided moisture and an Arctic system dropping down from the north with strong winds, Hulme said.

There was greater accumulation in some parts of the state than in Casper, with 9 inches stacking up outside Lander and 10 inches in Alpine, down in Lincoln County.

Casper Mountain recorded between 4-6 inches, while the Casper/Natrona County International Airport just got 2.

The snowfall died down in Casper mid-day. The possibility of showers was expected going into the evening on the eastern side of the state, Hulme said.

The wind, however, which helped create the hazardous road conditions in Wyoming on Monday was expected to continue overnight.

Hulme said wind chill in Casper could reach the negative 20s. In Sweetwater County, the windchill could dip into the negative 30s.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

A horse-drawn sleigh takes visitors across the National Elk Refuge on Monday morning in Jackson Hole. Several thousand elk are currently wintering on the refuge. The daily sleigh rides are operated by an independent contractor and continuing despite the partial government shutdown.

Nation's coal consumption in 2018 expected to be lowest since 1979

Coal consumption in the U.S. for 2018 is expected to be the lowest since 1979, a likely predictor of another drop for Wyoming production given that the state ships more than 90 percent of its coal to users in other states.

The coal industry has been in decline since a peak in 2007, tracking the falling use of coal in power plants across the country. The largest coal state in the country, Wyoming produces more coal from its 16 mines than the next six largest producing states combined.

Wyoming production of the black rock peaked in 2008, but the state’s coal industry has felt the pinch following that high, suffering a downturn in 2015 and 2016. In just those two years, the state lost about one quarter of its annual coal production.

The rally that followed the downturn has been modest, with production rising just 6 percent in 2017 and firms bringing back just five full-time mine employees compared to the nearly 1,000 that were lost. The narrowed coal market continues to represent uncertainty in one of Wyoming’s bedrock industries, with one of the largest coal producers in the state considering a sale.

National coal consumption in the final months of 2018 has yet to be counted by federal and state officials, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration — which tracks weekly coal shipments — estimates that consumption will be down 4 percent for the year compared to 2017.

The use of coal in the U.S. has fallen by 44 percent in the last decade, with 2018 consumption projected to be 437 million short tons lower than the 2007 peak, according to the EIA.

The drop is largely due to the decline in the coal power market spurred by cheap natural gas.

Energy Information Administration 

Coal consumption in the U.S. has been falling since 2007, as shown in this Energy Information Administration graphic. The market contraction has shaken Wyoming's coal industry. The state is the largest coal producer in the country. 

Utility companies, by the end of 2017, had retired 529 of the 1,470 coal-fired generators operating in 2007. Many of those retirements were for old, less efficient units. The EIA notes that a federal rule to reduce mercury and air toxics in 2015 drove many of those retirements as utilities chose to close older units rather than invest in compliance with the new standards.

Mercury is released into the air from burning coal. Exposure can cause neurological disorders as well as respiratory problems.

The Trump administration proposed a rollback of the mercury standards just last week. Most utilities say they have already absorbed the cost of the new mercury standards or made retirement decisions.

In addition to the new standards, coal plants have had to operate at lower efficiency levels than they were designed for, given that the electricity market is more dynamic than it once was. Cheaper sources of power like natural gas, wind and solar outcompete coal-fired electricity and coal plants are not designed to operate at low levels, turn on and off, or ramp up and down, the EIA notes.

With the first three quarters of 2018 counted, Wyoming coal production was down 5 percent compared to the first three quarters of 2017.

House Democrats have a plan to re-open government

WASHINGTON — House Democrats unveiled a package of bills Monday that would re-open the federal government without approving funding for President Donald Trump's border wall with Mexico, establishing an early confrontation that will test the new power dynamic in Washington.

The House is preparing to vote as soon as the new Congress convenes Thursday, as one of the first acts after Democrats take control, according to an aide who was not authorized to discuss the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Democrats under Nancy Pelosi are all but certain to swiftly approve the two bills, making good on their pledge to try to quickly resolve the partial government shutdown that's now in its second week. What's unclear is whether the Republican-led Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will consider either measure — or if Trump would sign them into law.

"It would be the height of irresponsibility and political cynicism for Senate Republicans to now reject the same legislation they have already supported," Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement late Monday.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The package does not include the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall on the southern border.

The president told Fox News Channel in an interview Monday that he was "ready, willing and able" to negotiate. He added: "No, we are not giving up. We have to have border security and the wall is a big part of border security."

McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart made it clear Senate Republicans will not take action without Trump's backing. "It's simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the president that he won't sign," he said.

Republican senators are refusing to vote on any bills until all sides, including Trump, are in agreement. Senators were frustrated that Trump had dismissed their earlier legislation to avert the shutdown.

House Democrats did not confer with Senate Republicans on the package, but the bills are expected to have some bipartisan support because they reflect earlier spending measures already hashed out between the parties and chambers.

One bill will temporarily fund the Department of Homeland Security at current levels, with $1.3 billion for border security, through Feb. 8 while talks continue.

The other will be on a measure made up of six other bipartisan bills — some that have already passed the Senate — to fund the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Housing and Urban Development and others closed by the partial shutdown. They would provide money through the remainder of the fiscal year, to Sept. 30.

The House is planning two separate votes for Thursday. If approved, the bills would go to the Senate.

Senate Democrats support the measures, according to a senior aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, tweeted that without funding for Trump's wall, the package is a "nonstarter." He said it "will not be a legitimate answer to this impasse."

But as the shutdown drags on, pressure is expected to build on all sides for a resolution, as public parks and museums close, and some 800,000 federal workers are going without pay.

Trump could accept or reject either bill, and it's unclear how he would respond. The president continued to insist Monday he wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, despite assertions otherwise of three confidants.

"An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED," Trump tweeted Monday. "Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides)."

Trump's comments came after officials, including his departing chief of staff, indicated that the president's signature campaign pledge to build the wall would not be fulfilled as advertised. White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Sunday that Trump abandoned the notion of "a solid concrete wall early on in the administration."

"To be honest, it's not a wall," Kelly said, adding that the mix of technological enhancements and "steel slat" barriers the president now wants along the border resulted from conversations with law enforcement professionals.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emerged from a Sunday lunch at the White House to tell reporters that "the wall has become a metaphor for border security" and referred to "a physical barrier along the border."

Graham said Trump was "open-minded" about a broader immigration agreement, saying the budget impasse presented an opportunity to address issues beyond the border wall. But a previous attempt to reach a compromise that addressed the status of "Dreamers" — young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — broke down last year as a result of escalating White House demands.

The partial government shutdown began Dec. 22 after Trump bowed to conservative demands that he fight to make good on his vow and secure funding for the wall before Republicans lose control of the House on Wednesday. Democrats have remained committed to blocking any funding for the wall, and with neither side engaging in substantive negotiation, the effect of the partial shutdown was set to spread and to extend into the new year.