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Wyoming Mining Industry Prepares For Potential Rail Strike

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

Wyoming mining companies are closely watching contract negotiations between the unions and America’s railroad companies. Should a strike happen, layoffs at Wyoming mines are likely. 

“We’re hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, told the Select Federal Natural Resources Management Committee on Friday. 

The memberships of two unions voted against ratifying a tentative labor deal brokered by the President Joe Biden’s administration in September. Without a deal, a union of track maintenance workers could go on strike as soon as Nov. 19, and another could strike in December. If any rail union strikes, they all strike. That would be about 110,000 rail workers. 

Deti said coal companies predict that, should a strike happen, mine workers could perform maintenance and reclamation work for a while. But if the strike were to go on too long, they’d have to start sending people home. 

Trona mines would have fewer options to keep their workforce going during a strike. With trona, it’s not just the mines that get shut down. It’s also the processing facilities. 

“You’re talking a lot of money lost in a competitive environment,” Deti said. 

Good But Could Be Better

Even without a strike, the railroad companies are struggling to find workers. Powder River Basin coal mines are having a great year, with solid financials in the third quarter of fiscal year 2022. But the labor shortage on the rails has kept a good year from being a better year. Deti said that estimates are that the mines could have produced 30 million more tons this year if rail capacity was up to 100%. 

“The frustrating thing … we’re doing pretty well, we could be doing better,” Deti said. 

Rail capacity has improved from earlier this year, Detil said. 

Nathan Anderson, senior director of public affairs for Union Pacific, testified that the company ran 456 trains from the Powder River Basin in September and an estimated 470 trains in October, which is up over 100 trains per month over what they were running in the spring months. 

“We are seeing more coal moving, and as Mr. Deti mentioned, there’s more to move,” Anderson said. 

Good Jobs, High Pay

Hiring in the region, however, remains a challenge, Anderson explained. Union Pacific is on target to reach a target set earlier this year of hiring 1,400 additional crew members. But about 25% of those who are hired throughout the company’s rail system don’t make the final cut because they don’t meet the company’s testing standards. 

Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, asked if there was anything the State of Wyoming could do to help the company with its hiring challenges, such as getting the community colleges to help with training. 

Anderson said that often the training, especially for positions like engineers, is very industry specific, but he’d discuss the option with the training departments at the railroad. 

Senator Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, asked if COVID-19 vaccine mandates impacted their labor challenges, and Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said he knew people personally who’d left railroad jobs due to vaccine mandates. 

Anderson said Union Pacific had those mandates when the federal government required them for all federal contractors, but those are no longer in place. 

Matt Jones, regional director of public affairs for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, said BNSF was also struggling to find workers. 

He said the State of Wyoming could help by “getting the word out that railroads are hiring. They’re great jobs. They pay very well.” 

Jones said the community colleges could also provide some foundational training.

The testimony was informational, and the committee took no action on the issues at Friday’s meeting. 

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With No Federal Govt. Involvement, Gold Mine West Of Cheyenne Could Be Operational By 2025

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CK Gold Project spokesman Jason Begger stands where the mine's pit will go. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

The CK Gold Project west of Cheyenne is unique as far as mining goes in Wyoming. 

Because it’s all on state and private land – even the 17-mile transmission line won’t cross federal land — U.S. Gold Corp. is expecting to have it up and running within a few years. If it touched federal land, the permitting process would take several more years. 

Just ‘Get ’Er Done’

For Walt Ferguson, whose ranch abuts the state land where the mine pit and tailings pile will be located, the process still seems too slow. 

“The bureaucrats are everywhere,” Ferguson told Cowboy State Daily. “They could do this mine thing in several weeks. There isn’t any reason they can’t.”

The Ferguson family were among the original homesteaders to the area and are descendants of “get-’er-done” ranchers. 

Jason Begger, government affairs and community relations with U.S. Gold Corp., said the family has been great to work with. 

At the beginning of it all, U.S. Gold Corp. CEO George Bee sat down with the Fergusons at a kitchen table and sketched out agreements on what the Fergusons would allow on their ranch. 

No bureaucrats, just people working together to get things done.  

View of Curt Gowdy State Park from the CK Gold Mine site. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

State Permitting

The company still will need to do permitting through the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. 

Despite being the kind of “bureaucrats” that an old rancher like Ferguson would rather do without, Begger said the state has been great to work with. 

Wyoming has standards it must uphold, but also the process as if the goal is to facilitate development, rather than find reasons to oppose it, he said.

Minimize Impacts

Begger also said the company is putting a lot of consideration into minimizing impacts to the area. For example, it’s examining the potential for busing employees to the mine site to cut down on traffic wear on Happy Jack Road. The two-lane highway has had its share of fatalities, so buses will be safer along with reducing wear and tear on the public road. 

The state had the company do tests to make sure seismic activity from its blasting wouldn’t harm infrastructure or cause great disturbances for the neighboring residences. The modeling data shows the blasting will meet requirements, but the company performed its own blasting tests just to make sure shockwaves wouldn’t extend very far. 

Standing next to a small pile of rocks at the mine site, Begger explained that when the test was done, it wasn’t too exciting. 

“It was just a little pop,” he said of the explosion. “It wasn’t a big boom or anything.” 

The tests showed the granite the company will blast through is so hard that the neighbors won’t even feel a bump when the blasts are done. 

Ghosts of Hecla

Atop a hill on the northern edge of what will be the mine pit, Begger pointed to a wall that is the remnants of the town of Hecla. A century ago, the CK Gold site was a community of hundreds of people making up a copper mining community, and the wall was part of the mine’s mill operation at the time. 

There’s other evidence of historic mining activities — little craters on the side of a hill and some rusted-out broilers. There’s also a pile of broken up granite rocks that are the remains of the state’s reclamation of the Copper King mine shaft. 

The mine was developed in 1881, but now Hecla, its mill and the original miners are long gone.  

CK Gold Project spokesman Jason Begger holds a piece of granite that shows green oxidation of copper ore in it. The company plans to crush the granite and extract the gold and copper. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

New Technology 

Begger picked up a piece of granite and showed the green oxidation on it that indicates there’s copper in the hard granite. A century ago, the technology to extract valuable minerals from granite didn’t exist. Miners then only knew from the green color their target ore was somewhere in those hard rocks.  

The CK Gold Mine mill will crush and grind the copper- and gold-bearing rock. Then, using a process called froth floatation, will create a concentrate. That will be refined off site at refineries in Utah and elsewhere. There won’t be any cyanide, which is often used to leach gold from mined ore.

The tailings that will be left behind are just moist gravel, and the granite in the area is so hard that Begger nothing will leak into the groundwater. 

Early in the operation, there will be some visual disturbances to the views at Curt Gowdy State Park. As the pit is dug out, little of the mine will be visible from the park. Permits also require plans for dust control on roads leading to the mine. 

When the operation is done — and the company has a bond to back up its promise — the mine will be reclaimed and returned to look like ranchland again. 

A water testing station is set up at the CK Gold Project site. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

Jobs And Benefits

Begger said the company has invested $5 million into its permitting, outreach and planning process so far.

The mine will create about 300 permanent jobs and generate an estimated $75 million in tax revenue over its estimated 10- to 15-year lifespan. Construction of the mine will support 1,900 jobs over the entire building period. 

There’s other economic benefits as well, the company says, such as the water it will buy from the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities. 

If all goes well, the company should begin mining by late 2025.

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Wind, Solar, EVs Are Going To Take A Huge Increase In Mining & The World Isn’t Ready For It

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

Over the past 18 months, Wyoming has doubled its wind energy capacity from 1,500 megawatts to 3,000 megawatts, which reflects a trend across the country. 

Wind and solar provide about 3% of the total energy used around the globe, and the total amount of fossil fuels consumed is up. Nonetheless, governments and popular opinion are pushing to increase the amount of wind and solar on the grid and electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. 

What’s not often factored into what this transition will cost is the amount of mining that will need to be done to produce all the wind farms, solar farms, batteries and transmission lines. 

It’s not just rare earth minerals, but also copper, gold, lithium, nickel, cobalt and iron. 

Opportunity For Wyoming

Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, told Cowboy State Daily that Wyoming has very significant amounts of rare earth minerals, which are used in wind turbine, solar panels and EVs. Currently, about 97% of the market in rare earths is controlled by China. 

Contrary to their name, rare earths aren’t rare, but they are found in such low concentrations that it makes it difficult to mine them. 

There also are regulatory barriers faced with permitting any mine, and the financial challenges it takes to get investors to put money toward projects that can take a decade or more to realize a return on investment, presents an enormous and often overlooked challenge.

“It’ll take some time, and it’ll take some investment. But the opportunity is there,” Deti said. 

Deti said the federal government is providing funding to the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources to do some exploration work, which will help alleviate the up-front capital costs to rare earth mining in Wyoming. 

Likewise, the state is pursuing primacy over mine permitting, which will help speed up the process. 

The process now is expensive and very long.

New Mining Opportunities

U.S. Gold Corp. is pushing for a gold mine near Cheyenne, which also will produce some copper. Because the entire operation is on state and private land, the company is estimating it could begin construction activities by 2025 – a breakneck speed for mining projects. 

In 2012, Rare Element Resources pursued a rare earth mining operation near Sundance with a refining operation near Upton. That operation was on federal land, and before the company could complete the permitting process, which can take more than a decade, it ran out of money. 

Rare Element Resources is now pursuing a demonstration project, which it hopes will prove a better refining process and attract new investors.

Considering what it takes to open a mine, Mark Mills, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, warns the renewable industry is going to have a hard time meeting its targets. 

Ten-Fold Increase

Mills has a rule of thumb to put a number on how much mining the energy transition will take. 

While it varies between specific instances and technologies, to produce a unit of energy with EVs, wind and solar — whether it’s heating a room, driving a mile or lighting a bulb — it will require 10 times more mining than it takes with machines used in oil and gas production. 

The entire energy transition will require an unprecedented amount of mining across the planet. 

“All data that comes from the International Energy Agency, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the European Union’s own funded studies, there is no dispute. It’s a simple fact,” Mills said. 

In a 2021 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) analyzed the challenges of obtaining the necessary quantities of “energy transition minerals.” Plans to replace gas-powered vehicles with EVs, in addition to plans to replace fossil fuel-powered electrical generation with wind and solar, will require an increase in global mining output of 300% to 4000%, the report concluded.

The 2021 IEA report estimates that wind and solar projects require 500% to 700% more minerals compared to building a natural gas power plant. 

Besides the volume of mining needed, targets to reduce emissions force timeframes for the increased mining into two or three decades. Mills said, looking at historical data, it’s just not possible to ramp up mining to that degree that quickly.  

“The world’s mining industry is not now producing, nor planning to produce, nor announcing any plans to produce, an increase that’s even close to that for any, much less all, of the minerals,” Mills said. 

Not Getting Cheaper

Compared to oil and gas, there is a difference in energy density for the hardware in EV batteries, solar panels and wind turbines. 

Lithium-class chemicals for an EV battery, which is not the battery cell but the raw chemical, is as high as 700 watt-hours per kilogram. That’s compared to the 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram in petroleum. 

An EV battery weighing half a ton can achieve the driving range of 60 to 80 pounds of gasoline.That battery contains 30 pounds of lithium, 60 pounds of cobalt, 130 pounds of nickel, 190 pounds of graphite and 90 pounds of copper. The remainder is steel, aluminum and plastic. 

Much of the raw materials to produce batteries, solar panels and wind turbines will have to come from overseas, where environmental regulations are looser and labor is cheap. Even with imports the supply will be dwarfed by the demand. 

Cost projections don’t factor in the law of supply and demand, Mills said. E Source, a Colorado research firm, estimates that battery cell prices will increase 22% over the next few years. Inside Climate News reported this month that solar prices per megawatt hour are up 34% over the third quarter of fiscal year 2021. 

Currently, EVs account for about 1% of vehicles globally so these increases are at very low rates of penetration on the market. 

“All of the forecasts, all the mandates, all the aspirations and all the claims assert that those technologies are getting cheaper and cheaper fast. That’s not what’s happening,” Mills said. 

Lots of Emissions

When people think of energy, they usually think of electricity. Electricity accounts for about 20% of the world’s total energy consumption. The remainder is industrial heating, shipping and transportation.

Go to any mine in Wyoming and there will be enormous machinery moving earth and hauling the raw materials to wherever they’re shipped and processed. That machinery runs on diesel, and processing those raw materials — such as taking iron and making steel — requires industrial heating energy, much of which comes from metallurgical coal. 

Upstream of any product — whether it’s a hamburger, a house or a cellphone — is a lot of carbon dioxide emissions involved in processing the raw materials, manufacturing the product and shipping it to where it’s consumed. Determining how much CO2 emissions are upstream of any consumed product is enormously difficult, Mills said. 

Mills said analyses of the amount of energy needed to build a battery that can store the amount of energy in one gallon of gasoline range from 80 to 240 gallons of oil. While driving, the EV produces no CO2 emissions, but the energy to charge the battery might, depending on the source. 

The IEA calculated that if every nation achieves their ambitious EV targets, it will reduce CO2 emissions in this decade by 235 million tons. That will reduce global temperatures 0.0001°C by 2100.

Demand Destruction 

These minerals that feed the wind and solar build-out are also used to produce everyday consumer products, such as toasters and laptops.

When prices of these raw materials go up, as analysts believe will happen, it will have a secondary effect besides inflating the cost of the world’s energy transition. 

“You get what economists call demand destruction,” Mills explained, adding it “means you’ll build less stuff.” 

If you need copper for residential pipes and wiring, construction costs will become prohibitive meaning fewer homes will be built. Those who have homes won’t be able to afford any appliances for them. 

To keep the wind and solar rollout going, it will require increased subsidies, Mills said, and that will mean higher taxes. 

“Your taxes go up, and then you’ll find fewer appliances available to purchase,” Mills said. 

Mills said these impacts are not far off in the future – maybe a year or two. 

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New Wyoming Soda Ash Mine Expected To Create Over 2,000 Jobs in Sweetwater County

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

A new mine project near Green River will tap into the world’s largest soda ash deposit and potentially help satisfy the green movement’s growing demand for electric vehicles and solar panels.

WE Soda Ltd., a subsidiary of British-based Ciner Resources company, announced its plans Wednesday, but the project will need to navigate the federal permitting process before operations can begin. That could take several years or more. 

Oguz Erkan, president and CEO of Ciner Company, told Cowboy State Daily that, among many other products, soda ash is used in solar panels and electric vehicle (EV) batteries. With a growing push for EV cars and solar farm buildout across the world, the demand for soda ash is rising rapidly.

Growth Market

In 2019, annual demand for soda ash was about 58 million tons and by 2021, that jumped to 63 million tons. Estimates show that the world will be short about 12 million tons of future soda ash demand. 

The mine area holds the largest soda ash deposit in the world — a 2,000 year supply — and the company wants to tap into global demand to get ahead of international competition as the demand for the product grows.  

China already produces the most soda ash in the world, more than double the United States. Russia comes in a distant third, producing about a third of what America does. 

Because of high natural gas prices and carbon taxes, it’s difficult to produce soda ash in Europe, Erkan said, so the main competition is from China and other Asian countries.

Project West

Erkan said the Wyoming mine, which the company is calling Project West, has the potential to produce 3 million tons to start and is scalable, so the company can increase production later.

To facilitate soda ash exports, the company received a permit to export 14 million tons from a Stockton, California, port terminal. 

Erkan said the Green River project will create 300 permanent jobs and mine construction will create 1,500 to 2,000 temporary jobs. Another 400 to 500 indirect jobs will be created. 


Before any of those jobs are realized, the company will need to get permission from the federal government. The permitting process includes an environmental impact statement, which takes on average four years and is one part of the process. Some mines can take a decade to permit, but Ekran said production at Project West is expected to start by 2030. 

“This is where the support is needed, not for us but for any project. Because of the fact that if we can do this and get everybody behind it, these projects will be done very, very quickly,” Erkan said. 

Erkan said he is confident the company will be successful in getting its permits and meeting the 2030 timeframe. 

“If I can permit this thing in California, I think we’ll be able to do it everywhere else,” Erkan said. 

The Process

The mining will be done with an in-situ process to extract soda ash from trona ore. The ore is then processed into soda ash. 

Trona that contains commercially viable concentrations of soda ash occurs in only three regions of the world. Besides Wyoming, Turkey has a large deposit and China has a smaller one. 

Almost all the soda ash produced in China is done through a chemical- and water-intensive synthetic process at trona mines with weaker concentrations of soda ash, and that process is more expensive than the type of mining that will be done in Wyoming. 

Erkan said the project will recycle a lot of the water it uses, which will allow the company to reduce the amount of water it uses over time and keep water usage below that of conventional mines.

The company also wants to use green energy to power the mine, but Ekran said that it’s very difficult to have 100% renewable energy on a mine.

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Mining Companies See Opportunity In Wyoming But Permitting Time Takes 10 Years

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

Mineral exploration companies are looking for valuable minerals to mine in Wyoming. The prospects look good for gold, copper, zinc, nickel, and platinum mining in the Cowboy State, but realizing that investment runs up against a heavily bureaucratic permitting process, which can easily take a decade. 

Visionary Gold Corp, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, is performing exploratory drills to determine the economic potential of its 35 mining claims and 640 leased acres near Jeffrey City in southeast Fremont County. 

“Nobody’s really explored for precious and base metals extensively in Wyoming since the early 1900s,” said CEO Wes Adams.

With mineral extraction being one of Wyoming’s key industries — agriculture and tourism being the others — Adams said if these exploratory efforts pan out, it would be a valuable contribution to the state. 

Unlike Wyoming’s first prospectors, Visionary has a few more tools to work with to find the metals it’s after. Last spring the company conducted soil samples and magnetic tests to get an idea of what geological structures exist beneath the surface. With this data, the company began to map the geology beneath the surface. This paved the way for drilling exploration, which the company is in the process of conducting now. 

“The only way you can really find out what’s down there and be 100% sure about it is to drill it,” Adams said. 

These techniques, Adams said, have very little impact on the environment. The holes are about 1,600 feet deep and the operations take 7-10 days to complete. For comparison, drilling operations in shale deposits for oil and gas production go underground between 6,000 and 14,000 feet. 

Adams noted that the company hasn’t found anything solid that can be mined economically, and even if it had that today, there’s a lengthy process in the United States in order to get any mine permitted. The mining would take place on state and federal-owned land, so the company would potentially need to go through permitting processes at both levels. 

“Typically in Wyoming, there’s a combination of state lands and BLM [Bureau of Land Management], and we’re very comfortable working with both agencies,” Adams said. 

The federal process, which is about twice as long as the state process, requires an extensive environmental review, as well as archeological studies to ensure no cultural sites will be disturbed from the mineral development. 

Adams said permitting a mine in Canada would take an average of five years. He is hoping that new federal mandates will help expedite the process here in the U.S. As companies face supply chain issues in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more of them are hoping for faster permitting processes that will improve domestic supplies of critical minerals. 

Last month, Ford Motor Company, for example, asked the federal government for expedited permitting, CBT News reported. In a filing with the Department of Interior, the company argued that the decade-long permitting process makes it difficult for American businesses to invest in mineral extraction.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has impeded exports from the two countries, has increased concerns about permitting timelines. 

“Because of geopolitical concerns, there is more than ever before increasing demand for domestic production of these metals,” Adams said. 

Visionary isn’t the only company exploring for gold in Wyoming. Relevant Gold Corporation has over 40,000 acres of mineral rights in two sites, according to its website. The company has been conducting drilling operations at a site it calls Golden Buffalo, which is located immediately southeast of the Wind River Mountain Range and approximately 37 miles southeast of Lander, Wyoming in Fremont County. 

“While Wyoming has seen significant historical mining, it is relatively underexplored and has not seen modern exploration like we are conducting at Golden Buffalo,” said Relevant Gold Chief Exploration Officer Brian Lentz, in a press release on the exploration operations. 

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said shortening the permitting process is a priority for the entire mining industry. Any legislation that moves through the U.S. House of Representatives, Deti said, will likely be attached to a larger piece of legislation and its chances of passing are a “heavy lift.” 

“Whether it has a chance in hell … remains to be seen,” Deti said.

Adams said that the source countries from which we get minerals have far fewer environmental and labor regulations. It makes them attractive for mining operations, but Adams said there’s a larger concern.  

“Africa is being pillaged for its natural resources, and it’s being done by Chinese and Russian companies that really don’t have to follow the same set of rules that American producers have to follow,” Adams said. 

Domestic mineral production would be not only more environmentally sound, Adams said, but also more humane in many cases. 

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U.S. Power Plants Short On Coal; Utilities Scrambling With Cold Temps Ahead

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

The price for Wyoming’s coal is rising in the face of low supplies at power plants across the country, rising natural gas prices and predictions of cold temperatures in the near future.

Despite efforts by some political leaders to halt the use of coal as an energy source, energy producers are turning to the fuel in increasing numbers this year, only to find it in short supply.

But coal supplies at U.S. power plants have dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s and acquiring the resource has sent prices soaring. And even acquiring coal is proving to be a challenge because of supply chain issues that every industry is experiencing.

None of this is a surprise to Travis Deti, the executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

“We’ve been screaming from the rooftops for the last 10 years that America needs coal and that you can’t throw all of your eggs in one energy basket,” Travis told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday.

“(Natural) gas prices were never going to stay below $2.00 (per 1,000 cubic feet) forever. Gas is at about $4.60 and some analysts are predicting it to be over $7.00 in the winter,” he said.

The problem is that coal is sold in advance of when it is needed and because of the push to move away from coal as a power source, the resource has lost market share, leaving suppliers unprepared to meet this year’s demand.

Getting coal back on the table as a fuel is easier said than done.  As Deti explained, the problem does not lie in a shortage of coal, but in producing the necessary amounts to meet that demand. After adjusting to lower production levels, coal producers require manpower to boost production again.

“Ever since the decline started to happen a decade ago,  we said you need to keep coal in the mix.  You gotta keep it in the mix,” Deti said.

Coal is the one resource, he said, that is “always affordable, always reliable, and always abundant.”

“As for reliability, coal-fired power is going to be there when you turn on the light switch,” he said. “Unlike the renewables which we saw, fatally, in Texas last winter.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that coal supplies have become so low in some areas of the country that one power company that serves one-fifth of the U.S. population is reserving coal for use during the coldest days this winter.

The high price for coal is a good thing for Wyoming, especially if mines can get it out of the ground.

However, there’s a shortage of workers. Deti said mines in the Powder River Basin could use an extra 200 miners right now, as well as more trains to move the coal.

“You’ve got companies up in the basin right now that are offering $5,000 signing bonuses just to come on board,” he said. 

Deti said the short-term prospects for coal is good.

“The basin is sold-out for 2022,” he said. “They are selling into 2023. We are going to have a couple pretty good years.”

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Wyoming’s Economy: Trona is Bright Spot for Wyoming Mining

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Hidden from sight beneath Sweetwater County’s rolling hills, thousands of miners dig for Wyoming’s top international export — trona.

“We have four different companies mining underground beds of trona between Green River and Rock Springs,” said Travis Deti, the Wyoming Mining Association executive director. “The mines are actually quite the sight to see. It’s like a whole little city down there with machine shops, bathrooms and roads.” 

A sodium carbonate compound, trona is processed into soda ash, which is used in baking soda, glass making and cleaning products such as laundry detergent.

Wyoming is home to the largest trona deposit in the U.S., and the Sweetwater mines produce more than 17 million tons of trona annually, Deti said.

“We export about 50 percent of that right now, and I do think you’ll see the demand go up in coming years,” he added. “It’s really a bright spot for Wyoming mining right now.” 

RELATED VIDEO: Gigantic Drill in Wyoming Trona Mine

Unlike coal, trona doesn’t need to trudge through red tape before being exported.

“Coal is an energy material and has emissions, but trona doesn’t have those issues because you’re exporting it to create products, not to burn for energy,” Deti said. “There’s not a lot of politics surrounding trona and soda ash.”

Natural vs. synthetic

Soda ash produced from trona rock competes against synthetically produced soda ash to meet global demands, said David Caplan, communications director for Genesis Alkali.

“Synthetic soda ash is created with a chemical process and fills about 75 percent of the worldwide supply,” Caplan said. “Natural soda ash makes up the remaining 25 percent. But it has a lot of environmental advantages over the synthetic product.”

The process to produce soda ash from natural trona rocks requires less energy input, thus creating less greenhouse gasses, he explained.

In the U.S., soda ash is primarily used to create glass products and baking soda. In years past, North American laundry detergent companies used soda ash as a key component of dry detergents, but Caplan said consumers shifted toward liquid detergents and pods, which are created with significantly less soda ash.  

“In the U.S., we have a mature market — the average household uses 17 pounds of soda ash each year,” he said. “In developing countries trying to industrialize, you’re seeing soda ash use of less than 5 pounds per household per year. So, there’s a lot of room left for growth.” 

RELATED VIDEO: Another Gigantic Drill in Wyoming Trona Mine

Genesis Alkali’s products are shipped to Southeast Asia, Central America and South America, he said. 

“With the growing popularity of Mexican beer over the last decade, we’re seeing a lot of our international products — primarily the glass bottles — come back into the U.S.,” Caplan said. 

With a potential for a strong future in growing markets, the industry is continually evolving, developing new technology and reducing inefficiencies.

“Through technology and engineering, we’re able to improve our yields,” Caplan explained. “But one challenge we spend a lot of time researching is trying to ensure we have ample water. We use a lot of water, and we have to keep an eye on that.”

Supporting Sweetwater

Employing more than 2,000 workers, Wyoming’s trona industry plays an integral role in both the Green River and Rock Springs economies.

“Trona is the life blood of this community,” Green River Mayor Pete Rust said. “It’s the reason Green River has the second-highest median income in the state.” 

More than just jobs, the industry injects spendable income into the local economy, allowing other industries to thrive, Rust said. 

RELATED VIDEO: A Look Inside a Wyoming Trona Mine

But as the state works to diversify its energy portfolio, he said new hurdles have popped up.

“Recently, there’s been some interesting kinds of challenges with new interest in solar farms,” Rust said. “There’s some potential conflict of interests with these new developments that take up quite a bit of space.”

Deti said the energy and trona industries have to work together to ensure surface development doesn’t “sterilize” access to the minerals below. 

“I think it’s all about striking a balance,” he said.

In Rock Springs, Mayor Tim Kaumo said trona is equally critical to the city’s survival. 

“We’ve already got a black eye from the decline in coal,” Kaumo said. “If we were to ever lose trona mining, it would be extremely detrimental.”

That situation seems unlikely, however, and instead, he said the city is seeking to capitalize on the potential growth of soda ash demand.

“We’re trying to capture more of the manufacturing side so we can entice businesses to come to Sweetwater County, take advantage of the in-place infrastructure and produce products generated by the trona patch,” Kaumo said.

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