Coal: Dig It Up, Move It, Burn It
Wyoming’s Powder River Basin

Second in the "Energy and Where They Get It" series of articles on the major energy sites in the United States.

575 An endless conveyor of coal trains moves Wyoming away to be vaporized in the furnaces of the Midwest. CLUI photo

AS THE PERPETUALLY SMOULDERING LANDSCAPES of former coal towns like Centralia Pennsylvania attest, coal, a natural rock that exists in large quantities in the ground, burns, almost by itself. With a fuel that is this easy it is not surprising then that most electricity in this country is produced by burning coal.

Though mining coal in tunnels under southern landscapes continues, large scale coal production has opened up and moved west. Now, more coal comes from one place than any other single area: the Wyodak coal seam in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. In this treeless rolling landscape, in a region less than 70 miles long, around 2,600 people work in eight major mines, pulling a third of the coal that is consumed by the nation's power plants from the ground.

In 2003, Wyoming’s mass decreased by 432,000,000 tons, from coal that was extracted, shipped, then burned in the Midwest and south. This is more than the amount of coal produced by the two next largest coal states, West Virginia and Kentucky, combined, and more than half the total amount produced in the USA.

576 Black Thunder: maybe the World's largest mining operation. CLUI Photo

The rich swamplands that covered the region 75 million years ago formed beds of coal, now buried by a hundred feet or so of soil and rock. In the Wyodak bed (named for its presence in Wyoming and proximity to the Dakotas), this layer of coal ranges from 25 to 190 feet in thickness. The process of extracting it is relatively simple: employ large rolling shovel machines and drag lines (large clawed buckets moved around by cables and a crane) to remove the topsoil and overburden, and put it aside. Next blast the black coal bed with explosives to loosen it, and then scoop it up into massive haul trucks, and put it on a train.

In the Southern Powder River Basin two adjacent operations compete for the title of largest coal mine in the nation, the North Antelope Rochelle Complex, owned by Peabody Energy, and the Black Thunder Coal Mine. With operations all over the world, Peabody Energy, based in St. Louis, is the largest coal company in the world. It operates three mines in the Powder River Basin, but the North Antelope Rochelle is by far the largest, producing over 80 million tons per year.

A few miles away, the Black Thunder Mine is owned by the Arch Coal Company, the nation’s second largest coal company, also headquartered in St. Louis. The mine has operated since 1977, and was the undisputed largest operation in the country until it was surpassed by Peabody’s mine several years ago. But in 2004, Arch Coal bought the nearby North Rochelle mine from Triton Coal and added it to the Black Thunder Mine Complex. With a combined output of over 90 million tons per year, this reestablishes Black Thunder’s claim as the largest coal mine in the nation, and quite probably the world.

The scale of everything at Black Thunder is terrestrial and geologic. Its fleet of five draglines includes Ursa Major, a Bucyrus-Erie (B-E) 2570WS model, the third largest dragline in the nation. When it comes to machines this large, often only one of each model is ever made. They are assembled on site and never leave. In addition to the draglines are 11 giant electric shovels, dozens of 200 ton plus capacity dump trucks, and two towering storage silos, each with a 12,700 ton capacity.

577 Abandoned parking lot at Coal Creek, another Arch Coal property currently on care-and-maintenance. Once the coal bed is gone, the mines move on. CLUI photoMore than two tons of coal is produced at the Black Thunder mine every second, 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This is an amount of energy equivalent to a 600,000 barrel-per-day oil field, and enough to power over 5 million typical American homes.

But getting the coal out of the ground is just a part of this monolithically simple economic structure. As much as 80% of the cost of coal is conveyance: getting it to where it needs to go. At Black Thunder, if you could pick up the extracted coal at the mine yourself, it would cost just $5 a ton. In Illinois, electrical utilities buy the same coal for $30 a ton. Coal is largely a product of the railroad.

Coal was the material that made nationwide transportation possible. In the late 1800’s, railroads helped create the coal industry in the USA by demanding the material in large quantities for fuel in their steam engines. When the railways switched to diesel in the 1950’s, the coal industry slumped drastically. Coal companies reacted by developing economies of scale, employing new technology to move staggering amounts of material, with huge draglines and haul trucks, the largest land machines in the world. By the late 1960’s, coal fired power plants began sprouting up in the Midwest, mushrooms of opportunity fed by a stream of cheap coal, delivered by the railroad.

Within the network of strip mines in the Powder River Basin is one of the busiest and most lucrative railway systems in the nation. Dominated by the national Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railways, 80 trains a day move coal from Wyoming, each with over 100 cars, and each over a mile long.

At the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, up to 2,000 rail cars a day are loaded, filling over a dozen trains a day, and more than 5,000 trains a year. At Black Thunder, over 7 million coal cars have been loaded over the life of the mine. If they were all connected together, they would create a train that would spiral around the girth of the globe three times.

Though the coal industry is said to have been suffering in recent years, the rapid rise in oil prices, as well as other factors, seem to support the market of coal for the immediate future. According to the industry, the USA has a quarter of the world’s coal reserves, said to be the largest energy resource of any kind - oil and gas included - within the borders of a single country. And much of it is in Wyoming, making this rural state one of the most potent places in the landscape of energy. All you need to do is dig it up, move it, and light it on fire.