Coal mining in the top U.S. coal-producing region was down sharply at the end of 2019 compared to the year before.

Coal production in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana fell nearly 14% in the last quarter compared to the same period in 2018.

Volumes for the three-month period were the lowest in over two decades, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data released Monday.

The basin’s 16 mines produced 72 million tons (65 metric tons) of coal in the final months of the year amid ongoing competition from inexpensive natural gas as utilities’ fuel of choice to generate electricity.

“It certainly sets a new low-bar for this century,” University of Wyoming economist Rob Godby told the Casper Star-Tribune.

The weak quarter capped a tumultuous year for the basin as Cloud Peak Energy and Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy and Arch Coal and Peabody Energy announced they would merge operations there.

Two former Blackjewel mines, Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, returned to production in the fourth quarter after their purchase by another company.

Even so, the mines — two of the biggest in the U.S. — produced less than half as much coal as in the fourth quarter of 2018.

“That’s a big indication of where these mines are going to head into the future,” said Shannon Anderson, an attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council landowners group. “I think it really does show that these mines are back but they’re not completely up from the year before.”

Customers of Blackjewel’s former mines have moved on, said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

“When the customers go away, well, the production goes away,” Deti said. “I believe it’s just natural. We’re seeing a decline and it was a tough production year.”

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