POWDER RIVER BASIN — Standing ankle deep in a hill of powdery clay, chunks of rock and waste coal, Patrick “Rooster” Baumann, senior project manager for Cloud Peak Energy, can just make out equipment sitting on a ridge outside the boundaries of Antelope Mine near Wright. He’s staring northeast, at the edge of the largest coal mine in the country, North Antelope Rochelle.
Beyond North Antelope lies the second largest surface mine in the U.S., Black Thunder. Invisible on a horizon of gray and beige, are 10 more mines. This is the heart of the U.S. coal industry, which provides fuel for about 30 percent of the country’s electricity.
On a recent September morning, Baumann watched as miners he oversees drilled holes packed with fertilizer that when mixed with diesel will turn into mini bombs. They will go off like a string of firecrackers beneath the soil, breaking it up so diggers can easily shovel away the loosened ground exposing coal seams beneath.
The two large mines that are Antelope’s northern neighbors, which account for nearly one quarter of U.S. coal production, are the subject of a once fierce leasing debate that has lost visibility in light of coal’s two-year downturn, its bankruptcies and its layoffs.
On Sept. 15, the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver ruled in favor of environmentalists and against the Bureau of Land Management. The court said that the BLM has failed to judge the climate change impact of four leases, two for Black Thunder, and two for North Antelope Rochelle.