Defying trends, Wyoming eyes a new coal mine

Why a small operation is forging forward despite broader industry contraction.

 

Wyoming is poised to see the first opening of a coal mine in decades. The Brook Mine, near Sheridan, still has a few permitting issues to resolve before it can open, but it cleared a major hurdle in September.

The Wyoming Environmental Quality Council, an independent government-mandated review board, approved the proposal Sept. 28. But it still needs to be vetted by the federal government, and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is currently reviewing its application. Ramaco, the Kentucky-based coal company proposing the mine, hopes to begin operations in early 2017.

A dragline uncovers a stretch of coal seam at the North Antelope Rochelle coal mine, where 235 employees were laid off earlier this year.

While the mine could give a bump to Wyoming’s bruised coal mining sector, the proposed mine would be a relatively small outfit with fewer jobs than large operations in the state’s coal-rich Powder River Basin.  

Given the cutbacks and bankruptcies that have afflicted other coal mines across the country recently, a new operation is unexpected. Arch Coal and Peabody Energy announced 465 layoffs at two major Wyoming coal mines; both filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. In September, however, Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal submitted plans to exit bankruptcy.

While it’s likely the major players will hang on, the coal mining sector has been in steep decline nationwide, with historically low natural gas prices out-competing coal, and stricter environmental regulations making coal’s long-term future hazy. 

To explore our map, hover over individual coal mines for more details on recent layoffs. View specific operators and their respective facilities by highlighting a company name in the legend. Search geographic locations using the magnifying glass in the upper left corner. To return to original view, click the home button on the map view. 

One new coal mine doesn’t mean coal is back. But the Brook Mine’s approach may provide a road map for how coal could survive amid industry contraction:

It will be cheaper than other coal mines.

Unlike most mines in the Powder River Basin, which are open-pit surface mines, the Brook Mine would be a “high-wall mine,” which are less expensive to operate than open-pit or underground mines that require drilling into deep contours with more expensive and complicated machinery. And it would be require fewer employees, since it’d be “a mostly automated process,” Ramaco CEO Randall Atkins says. That also means the new mine wouldn’t make up for the gaps in employment that coal mine declines have created in Wyoming.

It’s starting off small.

The proposed mine would produce up to 8 million tons of coal a year. Compared to Wyoming’s two largest coal producers, Arch Coal Black Thunder and Peabody North Antelope mines, that’s not much: Together the complexes produced more than 100 million tons annually during Wyoming’s coal heyday. “We can find a market for this amount of coal,” Atkins says. “If you’re trying to start a 50-million-ton-a-year mine, that will be harder to place.” 

Location, location, location.

The mine will also be on private land, unlike most of the region’s coal mines. That means Ramaco will not have royalty payments to the feds, a significant advantage, Atkins says.

However, its location has also been a source of conflict: While Ramaco owns the mineral rights to the coal underground, another company, Big Horn Coal, owns the land. Because of Wyoming law, though, Ramaco has the upper hand: Mineral rights in the state typically take precedence over surface rights. Ramaco filed a lawsuit against in 2015 over original permitting that shows Big Horn Coal had no plans to develop there, Atkins says. The case is pending. 

Despite the promises of the proposed operation, there’s an outstanding question: As the demand for coal power declines, who will purchase the coal? Atkins declined to provide specifics about contracts the company has in place, but in 2014 he told the Casper Star-Tribune that Ramaco sought to export the coal overseas, a gamble other companies have made as well, with little success.  

Paige Blankenbuehler is the assistant editor at High Country News. She tweets .

Note: This article previously included an image incorrectly identified as the Powder River Basin.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...