Wyoming Coal, Uranium Mining an Economic Gem

Coal Mining in Gillette, WY
Coal Mining in Gillette, WY

Open cars filled with coal leave the Eagle Butte coal mine in Gillette, Wyoming and head for the Dry Fork Station generating plant owned by Basin Electric Power Cooperative, one of Gillette's Top Employers.

Mining and minerals play a crucial role in Wyoming’s economy. The state is the nation’s leading producer of uranium, coal, cola, bentonite and soda ash – all important resources that are in demand worldwide.

While development of these resources provides a major economic boost, state business and government leaders also recognize their role in being good stewards of the environment.

Uranium Makes A Comeback

Already the nation’s leading uranium producer, Wyoming expects to see a surge in uranium mining over the next decade. Worldwide construction of nuclear power plants may more than double in the next several years, and the United States still has more than 100 nuclear power plants in operation, powering one in five homes.

Cameco Resources, which delivers half of U.S. uranium production from its facility at Smith Ranch/Highland mine in Converse County, has plans to develop an adjacent site, Reynolds Ranch, and two additional sites, North Butte in Campbell County and Gas Hills, on the Fremont-Natrona county line, in the next few years.

At least 10 other uranium mines being developed by other companies are in various stages of the state and federal permitting process. Once its new mining facilities are fully operational over the next six years, Cameco’s uranium production is expected to double from 2 million to 4 million pounds of uranium, says Ken Vaughn, Cameco's corporate and government relations representative.

Cameco Resources, which is a subsidiary of Canadian-based Cameco Corp., recently moved its U.S. headquarters from Denver to Cheyenne to be closer to its principal mining activities in the state. Cameco has 215 employees and 50 full-time contractors working in Wyoming.

"Wyoming is very amenable to resource development and state officials and residents alike take their environmental responsibility very seriously – as do we,” Vaughn says.

Wyoming: King of Coal

Coal remains the mainstay source of U.S. electricity generation, and Wyoming is the nation’s largest producer of coal, providing 40 percent of the nation’s total production. Wyoming coal comes from four of the state’s 10 major coalfields.

The Powder River Basin, located primarily in the northeast section of Wyoming, is the largest coal-producing field in the world. Wyoming coal is shipped to 35 states and is highly desirable because of its clean burning, low sulfur levels. A major source of employment, Wyoming’s coal industry injects more than $1 billion into the state economy annually.

Wyoming coal mines produced about 442 million tons of coal in 2010, up 2.4 percent from 2009 and bucking a national trend that showed coal production flat overall. Growing demand and rising prices played a large part in the rebound of coal production in the state, says Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. He adds that if seaport capacity can be expanded on the West Coast, Wyoming’s coal producers could also expand exports to Asian markets.

"We are very optimistic about our future in the mining industry,” Loomis says. “Our state administration and legislature and the general public are very supportive of the mining industry. They all seem to recognize its value and its contribution to the state economy.”

More than 6 million tons of bentonite is mined in Wyoming annually. Bentonite deposits in Wyoming make up more than 70 percent of the world’s known supply. Major uses for Wyoming bentonite include absorbents, animal feed, drilling fluids and sealants.

Wyoming is also one of the few locations in the world with so-called “rare-earth” elements. Rare-earth metals have a wide variety of applications including hybrid car motors, computer hard drives, cell phones and wind turbines. They are also essential for sophisticated military equipment. A Canadian company is exploring opportunities to mine rare-earth minerals in northeast Wyoming.

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