November 18, 2023 - Montana coal production is edging slightly downward.
The state’s four remaining coal mines produced 28.14 million tons for the 12 months ending in September, a decrease of a million tons compared to the same period a year earlier.
The lone increase in production was Rosebud Mine, which was up 75,505 tons. The Westmoreland-owned mine produces coal for Colstrip Power Plant. Otherwise, coal production was down in a challenging year for Montana coal.
In March, a federal court ordered Signal Peak Mine to stop mining federal coal at least until a study could be done to determine the environmental impacts of burning the fuel. Judge Donald Molloy concluded that federal regulators shouldn’t have permitted the mining of federal coal without calculating the climate consequences.
The court order meant Signal Peak had to relocate its longwall mining equipment into a pocket of state and private coal. Signal Peak mine production decreased 404,629 tons in the four quarters ending in September.
Similarly, Spring Creek Mine experienced a decrease of 328,960 tons during the period. Last December, Navajo Energy Transition Company sued BNSF for allegedly prioritizing coal shipments from other mining companies. Then, in June, the U.S. Surface and Transportation Board mandated BNSF ship 23 trainloads of the tribally owned mining company’s Spring Creek coal each month.
However, the STB’s shipping terms seemed short lived. Last week BNSF and the tribal-owned mining company informed the U.S. Surface and Transportation Board that a settlement on NTEC’s breach of contract claims was being finalized. The two parties asked the U.S. Surface and Transportation Board to suspend proceedings in the case until January when the final details of a settlement should be complete.
Absaloka Mine production was down 348,881 tons over the same period. The mine fuels the Sherburne County Power Plant near Becker, Minnesota, which is stepping down its coal consumption as it phases out all three of its coal-powered units by 2030. Power plant owner Xcel Energy broke ground on a 460-megawatt solar and battery project at the SHERCO site in May.
Absaloka Mine production was 1.8 million tons for the period. Ten years ago, the mine produced roughly 6 million tons of coal annually. Westmoreland operates the mine, with mineral rights held by with the Crow Tribe of Indians.
Since 2020, the number of Montana coal mines has decreased by two. In far Eastern Montana, The Westmoreland-owned Savage Mine lost is final customer in February when American Crystal closed its sugar beet plant in Sidney. The mine’s primary customer, MDU-owned Lewis and Clark Generating Station, stopped burning coal in 2021.
Decker Mine, which neighbors Spring Creek, ended coal operations in early 2021, one month after owner Lighthouse Resources filed for bankruptcy.