GILLETTE, Wyo. — The amount of coal mined in northeast Wyoming declined by 4.8 percent in 2015, according to the latest coal production numbers.
The 12 active mines in the Powder River Basin dug out 363.3 million tons of coal last year, 18.5 million tons less than the 381.8 million tons mined in 2014.
Since the basin's high production mark of 446.5 million tons produced in 2008, production is off by 19 percent. That's a drop of nearly one-fifth in eight years.
The Powder River Basin is the nation's largest coal-producing region. It produces some of the world's cleanest-burning coal for significantly less than it costs to mine elsewhere.
The coal industry is being hurt by increased federal regulation and restrictions as well as low prices for competing natural gas.
For 2015, most of the basin's reduced production came from Cloud Peak Energy's Cordero Rojo mine, which posted a drop of 11.9 million tons. While on the surface that may seem a reaction to more recent pressures on the coal industry, the mine is actually going through a reduction in production that's been planned for a couple of years, said Colin Marshall, Cloud Peak's president and CEO.
"We announced we were going to do all this in 2014," he said. "We knew the market would be shrinking and the actual net change is we didn't have to spend well over $200 million (by reducing production).
"By recognizing the market was coming down, the last thing you want to do is produce a lot of coal nobody's going to want to buy. Eventually, you can't force people to take coal, so it's better to do (this) and manage the business accordingly. By planning the way we were, we were able to accomplish that reduction without layoffs."
Peabody Energy's North Antelope Rochelle mine, which produced a record 118 million tons in 2014, produced 109.3 million tons in 2015, a drop of 8.7 million tons, or 7.3 percent.
Still, Peabody announced this past week that the mine had shipped its 2 billionth ton of coal since it opened about 32 years ago.
Overall, Peabody reports that mining and shipping 2 billion tons of coal took more than 83 million employee hours and more than 125,000 trains pulling more than 17 million cars full of coal. If all the cars were put end-to-end, they would make a coal train 177,500 miles long that circled the Earth more than seven times.
Bob Burnham, owner and analyst of Colorado-based Burnham Coal, said that reduced production will mean fewer jobs.
"The reality is, the mines are going to try to find ways to reduce costs as productivity trends down. As production goes down, you need fewer people," Burnham said.
But he cautions that predictions that Wyoming stands to lose all of its estimated 11,000 coal jobs are extreme and alarmist.