Get Big Pivots

Facts tell a more complex story. Coal companies have enough Powder River Basin leased to continue mining until 2041


by Allen Best

To some Wyoming politicos the Biden administration coal-leasing announcement was evidence of humanity’s descent to hell in a handbasket. Some in the environmental community were moved to hallelujahs.

The Bureau of Land Management recently said it would cease issuing new permits for mining coal in the Powder River Basin. It was a decision without consequence. Demand for coal has been sliding since 2008, and the slide will almost certainly accelerate.

Mining companies in the Powder River can continue mining their existing leases at the current rate of extraction until 2041 without exhausting them, according to the analysis by the BLM. They’re unlikely to do so. Just consider the market for Powder River coal in Colorado.

Along the Front Range, coal plants mostly if not entirely burn coal from the Powder River Basin. Two units, one each in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, were shut down in 2022. Four others from Fort Collins to Pueblo will cease operation before the end of 2030. Yet another coal unit, Pawnee, near Brush, will convert from coal to gas by no later than 2026.

Coal’s decline started long before Jared Polis became governor of Colorado in 2019 and Joe Biden was elected president in 2020. Both have shepherded policies that take climate change seriously, but the shift from coal was already well underway.

Donald Trump, when campaigning in 2016, pledged to bring back “clean, beautiful coal.” He did nothing of the sort. Coal jobs declined 24% during the Trump presidency. And 60 coal companies declared bankruptcy between 2012 and 2020. Among them were Arch and Peabody, two major operators in the Powder River Basin who also have operations in Colorado.

To help make sense of Wyoming’s path forward, I called a resident of Cheyenne, Larry Wolfe, who is retired now but for 30 years represented coal companies. “If you are going to be realistic about this, you have to look at some of these coal companies,” he told me. “They’re not great companies anymore. They used to be — Peabody and Arch and a couple of others. They are not anymore.”

I had noticed Wolfe’s response to the statement of Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who called the leasing decision part of Biden’s war on Wyoming. “This will kill jobs and could cost Wyoming hundreds of millions of dollars used to pay for public schools, roads, and other essential services in our community,” Barrasso said. “Cutting off access to our strongest resource surrenders America’s great economic advantage – to continue producing affordable, abundant, and reliable American energy.”

Wyoming’s two other delegates in Congress echoed him: The United States will become dependent on energy from other countries. This will create more pollution in other countries who don’t have access to Wyoming’s clean coal. And so forth.

Environmental groups were supportive but restrained. “A monumental decision,” said Earthjustice. Individuals were more enthusiastic. Wow!” said one person in an e-mail chain.

Powder River Basin Resource Council attorney Shannon Anderson confirmed my instinct. “This is a symbolically significant decision for the climate but in terms of practicality it means absolutely nothing,” she told me.

Anderson explained that unlike oil and gas leasing on federal lands, coal companies must ask for leases. In the past, they commonly did so adjacent to existing mines. Mining companies must initiate leasing action. None have not done so since 2012. Two pending leases have stalled since 2015, awaiting action by the companies.

Colorado for a couple years had the coal equivalent of man bites dog. A company had reopened a mine west of Trinidad. Then it, too, closed. My research suggests limited coal mining in northwest Colorado beyond 2028, when the last power plant there closes. West Elk, near Paonia, the state’s largest producer, may last longer. It has reserves of 10 to 12 years at current rates of extraction.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon has made carbon capture and sequestration his initiative as chair this year of the Western Governors Association. He professes to believe carbon capture can prop up coal mining.

In Colorado, the Polis administration sees a more limited role for carbon capture, such as for sequestering emissions from ethanol plants. The Colorado Land Board seems to think this can constitute a revenue stream in years ahead. It has already leased lands near Yuma, Pueblo, and in Weld County.

In Cheyenne, the retired attorney Wolfe sees few of the active 14 coal mines continuing operations in years ahead and much greater use of automation. Railroads may want to rededicate equipment used to haul coal to other purposes. In short, he expects a cascading effect for Powder River Basin coal.

For others, with a blind eye to easily available facts, it’s all Biden’s fault.

Top photo: Trains await loading of coal from the Black Thunder Mine in the Powder River Basin in May 2011, three years after peak production from the basin. Photo/Allen Best

Allen Best
Follow Me

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This