« Return to this article

Know the West

Wyoming's pile of coal


This month, Wyoming coal companies will pull the 10 billionth ton of coal from the state's ground, according to a recent estimate by the Wyoming State Geological Survey. If all that ancient metamorphosed swamp were put in a 100-foot high pile, it would stretch across a 12-by-12-mile square of prairie.

WSGS based the 10-billion ton milestone on detailed records the state has kept since 1865, shown on the graph below. What I learned from WSGS's coal history archive and from talking to WSGS coal geologist Chris Carroll is that coal's ebb and flow over the years tells a story much larger than numbers marked on a chart. Although we tend to think of our prodigious coal consumption as a sudden, intractable habit, Wyoming coal -- which is a big chunk of the country's coal -- has changed constantly over the years, adapting to new technologies, wars, laws and the vagaries of economics.

What you'll probably notice first on the graph is the massive rise in production starting in the 1970s. But for the moment, look to the seemingly empty left part of the graph. The whistle of the Union Pacific Railroad sounded in southern Wyoming in 1867, and coal mining commenced on railroad-owned lands granted by the federal government. The coal primarily fueled the steam engines. Miners lived in company towns and courted death each day in underground mines. Nine mine disasters between 1886 and 1924 killed 328 people. The danger and low wages periodically triggered strikes, including one in 1885 when miners burned the homes of 74 Chinese families who were working as strikebreakers.

The first noticeable blips on the graph mark the years of World War I and World War II. During this period, the major use of coal was for industrial processes like firing blast furnaces to make steel, which ramped up during war efforts. According to Energy Information Agency data (graph below), it wasn't until the late 1950s that more coal was used by power plants than by industry.

Coal use predictably tapered off during the Great Depression, but its decline after World War II was more complicated. By the 1950s, coal was already the primary source of electricity, climbing above hydro power. But overall coal use in Wyoming declined during the 1950s as coal fell out of fashion for home heating and other domestic uses, in favor of natural gas (second graph below). Even so, the average home relied more on burning coal than using electricity (in terms of raw energy units) until nearly 1960.

As electricity use climbed steadily from the 1950s on, advances in coal-burning technology made coal more attractive as a fuel for electric generation. A few smaller coal-fired plants had been constructed in Wyoming starting the late 1940s. But in the 1970s, huge new plants were built to supply not only local demand, but that of the whole northwest region, and coal production hockey-sticked as a result.

The 1970s coal-plant building spree was stoked not only by rising electricity demand, but by the energy crisis kicked off by the 1973 oil embargo. The federal government saw in Wyoming a ripe and bountiful supply of domestic energy. To the horror of conservation groups and ranchers, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed building 42 coal-fired plants near the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to feed the nation's seemingly insatiable energy appetite, and plans abounded for synthesizing coal into gasoline substitute.

As the foreign energy squeeze eased and energy consumption leveled off, however, most of these coal-plant and coal-gasification projects never materialized. The energy boom inevitably gave way to bust in the mid 1980s, and Wyoming coal production sputtered. But in 1990, it hit its next boom when the demand for Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal skyrocketed after Congress amended the Clean Air Act to address acid rain, which in the northeast United States, especially, had become a major problem. As of 2011, 35 states got coal from Wyoming.

Wyoming coal production climbed through the 1990s and early 2000s, then fell significantly for the first time since the 1970s. Rising natural gas prices, which initially helped keep demand for coal high, eventually paved the way for a gas drilling boom. Aided by new drilling technologies that helped open previously unexplored gas fields, natural gas extraction has taken off, dropping the price precipitously. As a result, natural gas has steadily replaced coal for electricity generation since 2008 (see HCN 11/12/12 "Economics, not environmental regs, are battering coal power")

That's been good news for those concerned about human-caused climate change. “Public enemy No. 1 is burning coal” was what Steven Running, a University of Montana climate change researcher, told those gathered at a recent rally in Missoula. Coal companies have a different outlook. “The (coal mining) industry looks forward to supplying power from Wyoming coal ... for the next 100 years,” said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, in a press release issued by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead's office in response to the 10 billion-ton milestone. Company profits would benefit from this vision of stable coal consumption. But if Wyoming coal's history is any lesson, its future is anything but certain.

Marshall Swearingen is a High Country News intern.

Images courtesy Wyoming State Geological Survey, Energy Information Agency, and Butte-Silver BowPublic Library.