Big Coal's last stand

  @FortuneMagazine February 27, 2014: 6:57 AM ET
PEA17 coal train

Peabody's coal train hauls it away: Leaving the North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming, each car carries 110 tons of coal, and each train is about 125 cars long.


On a bright blue morning on the high plains of eastern Wyoming, Bill Veal is doing what he's done every working day for the last couple of decades: scraping energy out of the earth. A veteran miner, Veal operates a massive shovel that loads piles of coal ore into haul trucks at Peabody Energy's North Antelope Rochelle Mine, known as NARM, an hour or so south of Gillette, Wyo. Veal is about halfway through his 12-hour shift and, at 61, nearing the end of his 40-odd years of working in the mines. The seven-story-tall shovel, equipped with a toothed bucket 21 feet across, carves the mine face as Veal, who has been operating a shovel for 19 years, controls the machine with deft manipulations of two joysticks and two foot pedals. The bucket, large enough to contain five compact cars, dumps into the giant trucks, each capable of carrying 400 tons of coal and rock, that queue alongside. "One Thing Leads to Another," by the Fixx, blasts from the stereo in Veal's cab.

One load every minute or so, three loads per truck, one truck every six or eight minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: Like choreographed pachyderms, the huge machines perform a ponderous yet intricate dance that never stops or slows, feeding the world's insatiable thirst for cheap energy. Every day from NARM's twin load-out facilities 20 trains are filled with coal and sent to points east, west, and south. At about 125 cars a train and 110 tons of coal per car, that's close to 300,000 tons of coal a day, from this one mine. NARM is the biggest mine in the Powder River Basin, but the others are productive as well: In all, close to 70 trains a day leave the basin, carrying nearly 1 million tons of coal.

By most measures this is a bleak period for the coal industry. U.S. coal consumption fell in 2012 to its lowest level in a quarter-century. Shares in coal-mining companies have gotten hammered as Wall Street looks to more-sustainable forms of energy. Competition from abundant natural gas has eroded coal's primary edge, its low cost, and new EPA rules on emissions from power plants threaten to bring to a close the century-and-a-half era of coal.

But anyone who thinks that the so-called war on coal is over and that the environmentalists and the federal regulators won should visit NARM, one of the dozen open-pit mines that pock the landscape of the basin. If the coal industry is expiring, it's putting on a hell of a death scene here in eastern Wyoming.

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