By Greg Johnson
February 4, 2018 - Powder River Basin coal production cracked the 300 million tons for the 17th time in the last 18 years in 2017, including mining the basin’s 7 billionth ton of coal.
That milestone came in the second half of the year, which saw production slow slightly from the first six months of the year, according to production numbers reported to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Overall, the basin’s 12 mines produced 305.2 million tons of coal, a 6.7 percent increase over the 286.6 million tons produced in 2016, but off the 22.3 percent spike seen in the first part of last year.
Still, the numbers are encouraging having just completed the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration, which saw the rollback of a raft of Obama-era regulations on fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions, said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
“In general, it was a better year for us,” he said. “We saw some some leveling out. … Going forward, we’ve hit a little stability and on the regulatory front there are no questions.”
The solid year also shows that coal production in the United States seems to have settled into what industry analysts have called its “new normal,” Deti said.
After a prolonged downturn that saw sharp dips in production beginning in 2015 and continuing through 2016, U.S. coal accounts for about 32 percent of the nation’s electricity production, down from nearly 40 percent prior to the downturn and nearly 50 percent less than a decade ago.
“There’s no question that with the rise of natural gas as a competitor to coal, that’s huge, and that’s going to continue,” Deti said.
He also noted that, while coal still is a significant part of the nation’s energy portfolio, its dominance is shrinking as older coal-fired plants are retired and no new plants come online.
“Right now, it doesn’t make sense for a utility to pursue coal-fired generation, and that was by design from the previous administration,” he said.
Another obstacle is that renewables like wind and solar continue to enjoy huge subsidies and tax breaks that natural gas and coal don’t get, Deti said.
“Let’s make it a level playing field, and coal can be competitive,” he said. “Of all the basins (in the U.S.), we have some things going in our favor competitively.”
The MSHA reports not only show an increase in production in the Powder River Basin, they also show that employment remains steady at more than 4,700 full-time-equivalent jobs at the mines. That’s about what employment was at to end 2016.