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Despite Recent Production Boost, Wyoming Coal's Long-Term Outlook Is Dim


The collapse of the U.S. coal industry this year hit the center of U.S. production, Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Two out of the four largest coal companies in the U.S. declared bankruptcy. Hundreds of Wyoming miners lost their jobs. But a recent boost in coal prices and production and a pro-coal president coming in has some hopes rising. Leigh Paterson of Inside Energy reports from Northeastern Wyoming.

LEIGH PATERSON: Gillette, Wyo., proudly calls itself the energy capital of the nation, and it's the largest coal-producing region in the U.S. by far. So with production ticking back up just past what it was at this time last year, you can feel the community breathing a sigh of relief.

STACEY MOELLER: I do believe that my friends and coworkers are safe for now.

PATERSON: The mine where Stacey Moeller works has been hiring back. Her conclusion...

MOELLER: For one more year, we're going to be coal miners.

PATERSON: And then, there's the election. On November 9, coal stock prices were up, and many in coal communities were celebrating. For Moeller, a single mom and a lifelong Democrat, it wasn't all that straightforward.

MOELLER: I did vote for Donald Trump. It's really hard to even say that because I so dislike his rhetoric. But I voted for him on one singular issue, and that was coal.

PATERSON: From West Virginia to Wyoming, coal country overwhelmingly voted for Trump and his message that he will bring coal jobs back. And in this time between the election and inauguration, people in coal communities are hanging their hopes on those campaign promises as a sort of last resort. U.S. coal production in 2016 is projected to be at its lowest level since 1978. Over the past few years, the nation has lost around 30,000 coal jobs.

MOELLER: 2016 was a really difficult year.

PATERSON: More and more coal-fired power plants shut down, especially in Ohio, Georgia and Kentucky. That's where Jeremy Murphy's from. And this time of year, he worries about other coal miners.

JEREMY MURPHY: Not just here in Wyoming but layoffs in Colorado, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio. So that's my main thoughts - is for those guys this holiday and their families. My hopes for 2017, you know, is that we're seeing a good boost in production here in the Powder River Basin.

PATERSON: A typical wintertime boost. But Gary Dawson is planning for the long term.

GARY DAWSON: I'm 50 years old, and I'm a coal miner.

PATERSON: He's also a beekeeper. Dawson's family runs a small honey business that they're trying to grow.

DAWSON: As a back-up plan.

PATERSON: Because Dawson doesn't want to be left without options. He's been there before.

DAWSON: We went bankrupt farming when I was in high school.

PATERSON: That means worrying about putting food on the table, being stuck with a house you can't sell. In Dawson's words, he doesn't want to put all of his eggs in the coal industry basket.

DAWSON: So right now, we are trying to keep the job at the mine, keep the bees healthy, keep trying to produce honey in case coal doesn't come back.

PATERSON: The Energy Information Administration - or the EIA - is part of the Department of Energy. Analysts there predict that production will increase a little bit - around 2 percent - in 2017. But the main driver behind that increase has nothing to do with the presidential election.

ELIAS JOHNSON: It's the economics.

PATERSON: The price to generate electricity from natural gas versus coal, says Elias Johnson, an analyst with the EIA.

JOHNSON: We are forecasting for natural gas prices to increase in 2017.

PATERSON: Which will make coal-fired electricity a little more competitive, he says. But looking beyond short-term predictions and presidential terms, the EIA's coal chart for Wyoming's Powder River Basin going out to 2040 shows a long line of slow decline. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

SIMON: Inside Energy is a public media collaboration that focuses on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.