Wyoming’s Powder River Basin Closes In On 9 Billion Tons Of Coal Dug Up

Sometime this summer, Wyoming is expected to reach a major milestone of 9 billion tons of coal dug up out of the Powder River Basin over the last 25 years. Experts predict the 9 billion ton milestone will be reached in July.

Pat Maio

May 06, 20244 min read

Long coal trains pull in and out of the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Campbell County, Wyoming.
Long coal trains pull in and out of the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Campbell County, Wyoming. (Kimon Berlin via Flickr)

Sometime this summer, there will be a silver anniversary celebration of sorts for Wyoming’s coal-rich Powder River Basin.

Despite all the gloom and doom of coal industry projections that call for falling production from the Cowboy State, America’s coal heartland is expected to hit an astonishing 9 billion tons of coal produced in the last 25 years since 1998.

It’s a silver lining for a region that has been bleeding red ink of late.

Given the projections about cuts in coal production expected this year out of St. Louis-based coal behemoths Arch Resources Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp., and previous trends reported on overall coal volume in the first half of the year being down more than 20%, it’s likely that the 9 billion ton milestone could be reached in July.

In a region where production of PRB coal is measured in the millions of tons, hitting 9 billion tons is something pretty remarkable, said Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association.

“It really is remarkable when you think about it,” he said.

Those Billions Of Tons Has Meant Billions Of Dollars

Coal dug out of the Powder River Basin, which supplies about 40% of the thermal coal in the nation, has formed the fabric of life in Wyoming for years, Deti said.

“For the past three decades, billions of dollars in coal revenue from our vast coal resources in the PRB have built Wyoming’s schools, roads and highways, and our communities,” Deti said. “And the thousands of men and women that have worked in those mines over the years can be proud that they have not only helped to build Wyoming, but have provided reliable, affordable energy to hundreds of millions of Americans.”

The high-octane years for coal began in the late 1990s, when it produced 293.4 million tons of coal, and steadily grew by leaps and bounds over the next decade to a record haul.

In 2008, when the United States was mired in a deep recession that slowed the economy to its longest downturn since World War II, the Powder River Basin pulled the most coal ever out of the ground in a single year.

In that year, the record haul of 446.5 million tons produced out of Wyoming’s northeastern region hasn’t been seen since.

In the last 15 years, that pace of production has nose-dived more than 48% from the record year of 2008 and has plateaued at around 230 million tons over the past few years, with the outlook expected to dip even further in coming years.

A man standing next to an SUV gives perspective to this huge exposed coal seam at a Powder River Basin mine.
A man standing next to an SUV gives perspective to this huge exposed coal seam at a Powder River Basin mine. (Bureau of Land Management Wyoming)

Challenges Ahead

The Wyoming State Geological Survey released data April 29 showing 2024 first quarter coal production plummeting nearly 21% from the first quarter of 2023, when the state dug up 58 million tons of coal.

The pressure to produce less coal is coming from the federal government, which last month announced rules that could force coal-fired power plants to close over the next 10 years.

The challenges for the state’s Powder River Basin are huge, as Arch and Peabody have highlighted in recent financial reports.

Lucas Pipes, an analyst with B. Riley Securities, who tracks the two coal companies, wrote in recent research notes that Arch faces challenges to “reverse course in the PRB” while the profit outlook for Peabody is softer due to the “near-term outlook” of PRB’s thermal business.

A mild winter, excess inventories of coal at coal-fired power plants and cheap natural gas have contributed to some of the challenges for PRB’s coal producers.

Meanwhile, as Wyoming approaches the anniversary for 9 billion tons of coal produced in PRB over the past 25 years, the state budget faces challenges.

Wyoming’s budget may see an estimated $50 million shortfall in revenue collection from severance taxes and federal mineral royalties from the state’s coal operators as it moves into calendar year 2025, warned Don Richards, co-chairman of the Wyoming Legislative Service Office in Cheyenne, in a recent email to Cowboy State Daily.

“If one extrapolates out the first 17 weeks of federal data on coal production (in 2024), the annual total Wyoming coal production is on pace for approximately 191 million tons, substantially lower than the 225 million tons forecast,” Richards said.

Pat Maio can be reached at pat@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Pat Maio


Pat Maio is a veteran journalist who covers energy for Cowboy State Daily.