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WYOMING THE GIANT COAL PRODUCER
For most of its history the most important economic activity of the state of Wyoming has been farming and ranching, although coal was first discovered in the early 1800s and the first coal mined in 1859. Anthracite was the main coal product for many years. The coal seams of Wyoming, including those of the Powder River Basin, were formed from huge peat bogs that over millions of years have been compressed and altered to become coal. The first commercial mines in the state established in 1868 were at Carbon near Medicine Bow and nearby Rock Springs.
These were owned by Wyoming Coal and Mining which was taken over in 1874 by Union Pacific Railroad which already controlled the company as well as transporting the coal. By the turn of the century the mines had closed but not before severe labour disputes had led, as seems always the way in the coal mining industry, to tragedy. This came in the form of the 1885 massacre of low-wage Chinese miners by white miners at Rock Springs following a wages dispute with Union Pacific.
As elsewhere coal mining in Wyoming was a hard business with safety never much of an issue with the mine owners. In 1903 the worst accident in the state’s history took place at Union Pacific’s Ludlow mine when 169 miners were killed by an explosion. As the years passed further accidents took place at Union Pacific mines and other mines in the state, and union problems led to countless disputes, sometimes as a result of company greed, sometimes as a result of union militancy.
After the end of the First World War Wyoming found demand for its coal weakened as the US economy entered a long period of instability which only ended with the Second World War 20 years later. As a harbinger of what was to come in the 20th century, Wyoming coal mining also became increasingly mechanised, causing considerable hardship in terms of employment amongst the mining community.
Wyoming output revived as the US economy recovered rapidly due to the start of the Second World War in 1939, with the US initially providing wartime supplies and equipment to Great Britain and its Commonwealth and Empire allies, and then its own armed forces after it entered the war in 1942. By the end of the war Wyoming’s coal output had reached almost 10 million tonnes but, as happened at the end of the First World War, after 1945 production collapsed again, falling to just over 2 million tonnes in the following year.
Depression in the industry was to last another 20 years until the mid-1960s, with Wyoming’s anthracite becoming increasingly shunned due to its main and declining role as a domestic fuel for heating and the advance of oil and gas as domestic heating fuels.
However in the mid-1970s in the wake of the huge increase in the oil price following the Seven Days War in the Middle East, mining companies began to look at the huge coal deposits of the Powder River Basin (PRB) which lay on the border between Montana and Wyoming. The main field in the Basin from which most of the coal is extracted is the Gillette field which lies mainly in Wyoming. There are two other significant coal blocks, the Sheridan-Birney and the Birney- Custer-Recluse fields, the former is roughly split between the two states and the latter lays two-thirds in Montana.
Gillette is the largest of the producing fields, providing over 90% of Wyoming’s output. Its resources are enormous but much of Gillette is buried too deep to be economic at current or even forecast future prices; current stripping ratios, dirt to coal, are around one-to-one, but much of the Gillette resource would require stripping of ten-to-one to be developed. The original resource was estimated at 800 billion tons, enough to last centuries at current mining rates, but the number in terms of economic mining is nearer 10 billion tonnes or little more than 20 years production.
The coal itself is ideal for power station burning, as it is low in sulphur and is easy to mine using massive draglines. It is also easy to load, an important factor when the coal has to be transported on long trains over many hundreds of miles to customers as far away as Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Georgia, as well as to nearer power stations in Colorado, Nebraska and Minnesota. The first railroad consortium to transport coal from the PRB was Western Railroad in 1982. In due course the whole network was amalgamated under the Union Pacific line. Originally the route serving the Basin had been a single track built by Burlington Northern to link Chicago with Denver.
In due course as volumes from the PRB increased, the line had to be extended and also an additional track added, and this process was not without further problems as contracted coal volumes threatened to outrun line capacity. In the mid- 1990s and then again ten years later, breakdowns and capacity problems gave miners and railroads considerable headaches. In 1996 a major investment programme allowed for an extension of the dedicated coal line and the addition of a third track.
The volumes on the line now can run to 15,000 tonnes of coal per train with around 80 trains daily and these trains can be up to 150 trucks long.
Wyoming, and its Gillette field, remains the dominant producer in the US today. Unlike in the dark days of 19th century Wyoming coal mining, the Gillette workforce is compact, very well paid and highly productive. The main three producers in the field are Peabody, Arch and Rio Tinto through its Kennecott subsidiary. The Powder River Basin is likely to dominate US coal mining for the foreseeable future and in an energy-scarce world is one of the US’s most valuable natural resource assets.