Coal Mining

Seeking Coal's Second Act, Wyoming Looks To China As An Ally

Oct 22, 2015
Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

Wyoming is fighting hard to keep its coal on the market in the future, no matter the form. Why? Because, according to Wyoming's Economic Analysis Division, revenue from coal accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the state's budget. That dependence is underscored by announced cuts to the budget, courtesy of lower-than-expected energy revenues.

As global pressure to address climate change mounts and market forces continue to work against the black rock, researchers and policymakers in the state and in coal producing regions all over the world are scrambling to figure out what to do with coal other than burning it.

Dan Boyce / Inside Energy

The walls of Donna Zofcin's humble Cheyenne, Wyoming, home are an homage to coal with framed watercolor prints of mining equipment. Living in the country's biggest coal state, it's a theme that runs throughout her life – even after her Kentucky coal mining husband passed away. So too, does her Catholic faith.

"Oh, we're very devout," Zofcin said of her and her family, "and we go to church every Sunday."

Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the environment has been both the biggest papal statement ever on the subject and a call for action on climate change. But for the faithful in western coal country, he is raising moral questions.

Colstrip, Mont., is true to its name — it exists because of coal.

"Our coal's getting deeper, like everywhere else, because everybody's mining. They're getting into the deeper stuff," says Kevin Murphy, who has worked in the Rosebud Mine for 15 years running a bulldozer in the open pits.

Everything about the mine is enormous, especially the dragline, a machine as big as a ship with a giant boom that extends 300 feet up into the air. The dragline perches on the lip of the pit, scraping away hundreds of feet of rocky soil to reveal the black seam of coal below.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

In recent years the government agency that handles the sale of coal on public lands has come under criticism for how it manages that program. Independent reviews have found the Bureau of Land Management may not be charging companies enough for the coal they mine.

That means taxpayers, who own the coal on public lands, could be getting short changed. In response, the Bureau of Land Management has been holding listening sessions around the country.

As with any forum related to coal, the session, held Aug. 18 in Golden, provided an opportunity for those in favor and opposed to the carbon-rich energy source to air their grievances.

When you flip on a light switch, odds are, you're burning coal. But as the fracking boom continues to unleash huge quantities of natural gas, the nation's electric grid is changing. Power plants are increasingly turning to this low-cost, cleaner-burning fossil fuel.

Bill Pentak stands in the middle of a construction site, looking up at his company's latest project towering overhead — a new natural gas power plant.

As Coal Wanes, Can Other Energy Sources Meet Its Stalwart Reliability?

Jun 16, 2015
Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

The coal stockpile at the Laramie River Power Station in Wheatland, Wyoming, is so big that you can't really see beyond it. It is similar to standing on the beach and looking out over the ocean, except this is one is made of coal – 35 acres of it. That's enough to produce electricity for about one month.

As a source of power, coal is predictable, easy to store, and well understood. Renewables and natural gas share few of these characteristics and some see that as a huge problem.

As the Environmental Protection Agency puts the finishing touches its proposal to cut carbon dioxide emissions – known as the Clean Power Plan – warnings that the transition away from coal will impact grid reliability are getting louder.

Western Slope Sees Change With Coal's Shifting Fortunes

Jun 8, 2015
Theo Stroomer / Special to Inside Energy

To get to Colorado's North Fork Valley, you drive along the area's namesake, the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Rounding a corner northeast of Paonia, past stands of aspen and cliff bands, suddenly you're driving through a coal mine, complete with two-story high piles of black coal and conveyor belts that stretch over the road. There's two more mines down the river and past that a gorgeous green valley filled with orchards and ranches.

Colorado doesn't have the same strong associations with coal mining as Wyoming or West Virginia, but the industry has formed the bedrock of many small town Western Slope economies. Like many other coal regions, production here is down and the area is changing.

The Past And Future Of Wyoming Coal Is Tied To Regulation

Apr 30, 2015
Jeremy Buckingham / Flickr - Creative Commons

Residents, lawmakers and workers in coal-producing states are worried about the future of their natural resource. A combination of environmental concerns, increased affordability of renewables, and low natural gas prices seem to be conspiring against the hard black rock.

Then there are the regulations. Perhaps the most impactful one is the Environmental Protection Agency's rule to cut mercury emissions from power plants. Those unable to meet the tight new standards will have to shut down. Another is the proposed and soon-to-be finalized Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions. But 45 years ago, it was another sweeping federal environmental regulation that actually gave Wyoming coal its start.

EPA Coal Regs A Likely Target For The New Majority In Congress

Dec 30, 2014
born1945 / Flickr - Creative Commons

When Congress heads back to Washington in 2015, one of their first agenda items will be to block, delay or otherwise damage the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. With the new Republican majorities in both houses, and the GOP takeover of key energy committee positions, doing so could be a real possibility.

For coal states like West Virginia, Illinois, Montana and Wyoming, the fight over standards matters. The Clean Power Plan aims to reduce emissions, in part, by shifting electricity production from coal to other sources like solar and natural gas. Right now, nearly 40 percent of American electricity comes from coal. If demand were to go down, the effect on these states' economies could be substantial.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

A coal mine in Delta County announced Wednesday it is laying off 150 workers, over 40 percent of its workforce. The Bowie #2 mine layoffs follow the shutdown one year ago of another area mine, which laid off nearly 300 workers.

Colorado's 12 coal mines produced almost 29 million short tons of coal a year, according to 2012 figures from the Energy Information Administration [.pdf]. These latest layoffs are part of a downturn in coal's fortunes, which could continue to affect rural areas of the state that depend on coal for high-paying jobs. 

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