powder river basin

Stephanie Joyce



Glance at a satellite image of northeast Wyoming, and you can’t miss the coal mines. Even zoomed out, the square-cornered grey blotches stand out—stretching north to south over more than 70 miles. But if all goes according to plan, someday, when the mining is done, those scars will disappear, erased from the landscape by intensive reclamation efforts.

Stephanie Joyce

Record heat in much of the country is good news for the struggling coal industry. 

Hotter temperatures mean more people running their air conditioning, which in turn means more power plants burning more coal. 

“The hot start to summer has greatly improved the outlook, after a very slow first half [of the year],” said Colin Marshall, CEO of Cloud Peak Energy, one of the nation’s biggest coal producers, on an earnings call with investors. 


On April 1, 2016, Frank Thompson lost his job as a mechanic at Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle mine. He was one of almost 500 coal miners laid off that day by Peabody and its competitor, Arch Coal. At the time, Thompson, who is a single dad, was most concerned about what being laid off would mean for his son.

"He’s seven years old, so he kind of sees it as some time to hang out," he told Inside Energy's Stephanie Joyce. "But I don’t think he really realizes that this could be us moving away from here."

Coal production during in the first quarter of 2016 was the lowest its been since 1981. According to the US Energy Information Administration, coal production in the Power River Basin dropped nearly 30% from the fourth quarter of 2015. That is a bigger drop than in any other region.

Demand for coal is down because of low natural gas prices, competition from renewables, and environmental regulations. An unusually warm winter also reduced demand, so companies cut production.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy


Environmentalists, lawmakers, coal miners, and advocates of all types gathered to have their say at a public meeting this week, in Casper, Wyo, hosted by the Department of the Interior (DOI). Like most discussions of the future of coal, the debate was passionate and polarized.

“This is a politically motivated sham, pandering to the political allies of the secretary and the administration,” Richard Reavey, an executive at a coal company called Cloud Peak Energy, said in his public remarks.

Federal officials are objecting to a coal company's plan to restructure and emerge from bankruptcy, because, they say, it looks a lot more like a plan to liquidate. 

Alpha Natural Resources filed a plan today outlining how it hopes to emerge from bankruptcy. At the heart of the plan is a proposal to sell the company's core assets, including its Wyoming mines.

Stephanie Joyce / Wyoming Public Media


In President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, there was a line that caught the ear of people in the energy industry.

“I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet,” he said.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

As part of a series of listening sessions held across the country, representatives from the Bureau of Land Management recently came to Gillette, Wyo., to meet with residents about the agency's federal coal program. The meeting quickly turned into an impassioned discussion about the future of the coal industry.

Janice Schneider, with the Department of the Interior, said the agency was looking for comments on “how the Bureau of Land Management can best manage its coal resources."

The federal government is going after a now-defunct Wyoming energy company for failing to document and pay royalties on the gas it had been extracting. 

Conservation groups are expressing huge concern over the proposed Bureau of Land Management proposed resource management plan for the Powder River Basin.  

The plan authorizes 10 billion tons of coal production along with oil and gas development. With concern being expressed over Sage Grouse habitat, some conservation groups thought the BLM would proposed reduced energy development.

BLM Director Neil Kornze said last week during a trip to Cheyenne that Sage Grouse will be monitored and that the declining coal market will take care of a lot of the carbon dioxide concerns.

Wikimedia Commons

For years, Wyoming has been the leader in Coal Production. Production has dipped slightly in the state, but Wyoming still produces 40% of the nation’s coal – far more than any other state. As part of Inside Energy’s series on the Future of Coal, Reporter Clay Scott visited the state and found the industry’s imprint on the West runs deep.


One of the world’s largest coal companies has withdrawn its application for a federal coal lease in the Powder River Basin. Arch Coal’s move is part of a bigger slow down in sales of Wyoming coal leases. According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are currently six leases pending. But the last one that was actually sold was in 2012. 

Stephanie Joyce

Coal companies could have to pay royalties on the sale price of exported coal if the Department of the Interior adopts new regulations next year. The draft rules released on Friday address a loophole first identified by the Reuters news service.

Leigh Paterson

Liquefied natural gas has long been used to power vehicles like buses and garbage trucks. But this week, one of America's largest coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources, announced a plan to build an LNG plant right next to a Gillette-area mine. That LNG will then be used to power the mine's massive coal haul trucks. 

Stephanie Joyce

The red smokestacks of the Comanche power plant outside of Pueblo, Colorado can be seen from miles away. The plant supplies power to communities along the Front Range, including Denver, and consumes hundreds of tons of coal an hour in the process. That coal arrives in mile-long trains from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and is stockpiled at the plant. Normally, that pile would be a hundred feet tall, according to Xcel Energy fuel supply manager Craig Romer. But right now, it’s less than a third of that.

As oil production continues to boom in the Powder River Basin, illegal wastewater dumping is a growing problem. Kodiak Oilfield in Converse County was recently cited for illegally dumping produced water, one of 14 water violations in the state so far this year.

Oil fields typically produce about twice as much water as they do oil – water that is high in sodium content and contains hydrocarbons. Dumping this water into streams, rivers, or fields could interfere with natural habitat, soil, and water quality.

Stephanie Joyce

There's a new pipeline project proposed from North Dakota to Oklahoma that would run through Wyoming. On Friday, Enterprise Product Partners LLC announced an "open season" for the Bakken-to-Cushing pipeline. Open seasons are a way to gauge interest and demand for a pipeline.

If built, the line would run from the Williston Basin in North Dakota, and would pass through oil plays in Eastern Wyoming and Northern Colorado. The line would end in the Cushing hub in Oklahoma, where oil is priced.

Totororo.roro via Flickr Creative Commons

The Port of Vancouver approved plans Thursday to build a nearly $14 million-dollar terminal to ship coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to Asian markets.

The decision came just days after state regulators in Oregon rejected a proposal for such a terminal amid opposition from fisherman and environmentalists.

Coal producers in the Powder River Basin have been looking to sell more coal to Asia, but these ambitions have been restricted by limited port capacity on the West Coast.

Stephanie Joyce

Wyoming’s Powder River Basin is getting renewed attention from oil and gas companies. The region has been producing oil for decades, but now companies are looking to tap some of the Basin’s old reserves using new techniques, like horizontal drilling and fracking.

As analyst Raoul LeBlanc, with IHS Energy, explained in a video blog last week, his firm thinks the Basin could have as much potential as some of the much better-known plays in North Dakota and Texas.

A 5000-well oil and gas project proposed for the Powder River Basin is drawing sharp criticism from a wildlife advocacy group.  Erik Molvar with WildEarth Guardians says the drilling would take place right in the middle of critical sage grouse habitat.

“Well, the 5000 wells are projected in an area of over a million acres to the north of Douglas, stretching all the way up in the Thunder Basin National Grassland and including several core areas that have been proposed priority habitat for sage grouse,” Molvar says.

The latest proposal for getting coal from the Powder River Basin to world markets involves a port on the west coast of Mexico. According to a report from SNL Financial, a Mexican company is in the process of securing permits for a $700 million export terminal. MEXPORT’s CEO Daniel Suarez told SNL there’s been interest from Powder River Basin coal producers, and if the company is able to raise sufficient capital, it could start exporting by 2017. The company's consultant didn't return calls for comment.

Stephanie Joyce

Millions of railcars leave the Powder River Basin every year, carrying hundreds of millions of tons of coal. Those are big numbers, but the coal we mine is just a small fraction of what’s underground. Most of the basin’s coal reserves are buried too deep for conventional mining.

An Australian company called Linc Energy wants to use a technology known as underground coal gasification to tap those deep coal reserves and turn them into fuel. But as Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports, that might come at the peril of another valuable resource: water.


Arch Coal executives expressed frustration with the nation’s two biggest railroads during a conference call with investors Tuesday. Coal shipments out of the Powder River Basin have been delayed in recent months because of congestion on the BNSF and Union Pacific main lines. Arch Coal CEO John Eaves said it’s hurting the company’s earnings.

Port facilities that would export Powder River Basin coal through the Pacific Northwest are continuing to move towards construction.

In separate decisions this week, Washington and Oregon both announced progress on permitting for coal export terminals in their respective states.

Coal dust emissions from trains could be cut following a recent ruling by the federal Surface Transportation Board. The Board ruled earlier this month that rail companies can require use of dust suppressants or ‘toppers’ on coal cars.

BNSF was one of the companies pushing for the rule. Spokeswoman Courtney Wallace says coal dust has been shown to foul the tracks and lead to accidents.

Amid a slew of disappointing quarterly financial results from Powder River Basin coal companies, some groups are raising questions about the commodity’s long-term viability.

The Boulder-based environmental group Clean Energy Action released a report Wednesday that predicts the country has already passed “peak coal” and that production will continue to decline because of rising costs. They include Powder River Basin coal in that prediction, even though it has the lowest production costs in the country.

Duncan Harris / Creative Commons

An unfolding court case might change how Powder River Basin coal is taxed in Montana. Last week, a Montana district court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit pitting Cloud Peak Energy against the state.

The state is asking for $3.4 million in back taxes, arguing that Cloud Peak underpaid between 2005 and 2007 by selling to an affiliated company at below-market value.

U.S. Geological Survey

Last week, we reported that the federal government might be selling Powder River Basin coal for less than it’s worth. As reform advocate Tom Sanzillo described the sales:

While coal producers look to international markets to make up for a soft coal market at home, experts advise that Asian coal demand will not be as strong as had been expected.

During a recent teleconference, researchers and environmentalists discussed the financial viability of building coal export terminals in the Northwest US to ship Powder River basin coal to Asia. Ross Macfarlane works for Climate Solutions, a clean-energy advocacy group. He said domestic producers didn’t account for the evolution of the coal market abroad.