Short-term Wyoming coal outlook good, says mine official

GILLETTE — The question of what the future of coal in Campbell County will entail long-term, remains unanswered. But in the near future, Powder River Basin coal is projecting to do well.

Kyle Colby, general manager of Cordero Rojo mine, owned by the Navajo Transitional Energy Co., said the ongoing year of coal production has been strong, with another strong year expected ahead.

But beyond that is anyone’s guess.

“For the next year, it’s good,” Colby said at the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday. “2022 is shaping up to be a good year for coal.”

He said that high natural gas pricing and global market conditions are helping drive up the price of coal.

“It’s good for the market, it’s good for coal and you can feel a lot of uptick in coal right now in the Basin,” Colby said.

NTEC took over the Cloud Peak Energy assets through bankruptcy in 2019, including its three Powder River Basin coal mines, Antelope, Spring Creek and Cordero Rojo mines.

Colby said that NTEC’s core business continues to be coal, although it has its eye on and has dabbled in alternative energy resources.

“We’re not just a coal mine, we’re an energy company and we’re transitional,” Colby said.

Recently, those alternatives have included helium production but not in Campbell County. Last month, NTEC acquired a helium development company, Tacitus. The recently acquired helium reserves are located on the Navajo Nation. The helium mining and development pulls helium from the ground and refines it to a quality usable for industries such as space exploration and internet cable.

“The uses of helium are based on various levels of purity. ... When you start to run it through the process and purify it even more, now the helium becomes more valuable as a fuel for rockets ... it becomes a much more valuable product than simple extraction,” said Jarvis Williams, NTEC director of community relations.

But for NTEC in the Powder River Basin, it’s still all about coal.

In 2020, about 19 percent of electricity generated in the U.S. was coal-based. In past years, that number was upwards of 35 percent, Colby said. 2021 will likely see coal producing 20 to 30 percent of U.S. electricity, he said.

Looking to the future, Williams said there is value in finding uses for coal beyond thermal energy. The carbon capture and sequestration process has been touted as a potential savior for future coal production. Through that process, carbon from coal could be used to create carbon-based products, rather than burned for energy.

“If they can do that and unlock it here, I think it’s really good for the state of Wyoming,” Williams said. “Wyoming has been funding all of this energy out into the United States and not having a lot in return. I think the idea now is to try to create a value-added product and keep it here in the state.”

When comparing coal with oil, there is more value and use for oil, Williams said. The idea is to broaden the uses for coal to maintain similar revenues in Wyoming.

“If coal is going to have a future, that’s going to be part of the conversation,” he said.