Coal firm to furlough or lay off over 100 workers at Wyoming mine

Energy

Trucks are loaded with dirt, rock and other debris at the Antelope Mine outside of Wright, Wyo. The owner announced it will lay off and furlough over 100 workers in response to the economic downturn.

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Coal firm Navajo Transitional Energy Company announced Thursday it will furlough 93 hourly workers and lay off eight salaried employees at its Antelope coal mine near Wright in response to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest workforce reduction adds to a string of layoffs hitting numerous mines across Wyoming coal country. This spring, coal firms have let go over 550 miners throughout the Powder River Basin, the country's epicenter for coal production.

“As COVID-19 continues to ravage the U.S. economy, domestic demand for coal has declined," Catie Kerns, a spokeswoman for NTEC, told the Casper Star-Tribune in a statement. "While we have taken steps to preserve as many jobs as possible, including temporary pay reductions, the continued decline has resulted in the need for additional workforce reductions at our Antelope Mine, near Gillette."

The eight salaried workers will receive severance, according to the company. All affected workers should be eligible for the extended unemployment benefits provided under the federal coronavirus relief act, according to NTEC. The company does not anticipate laying off or furloughing workers at its two other mines in the basin.

Last month, 57 workers at the Antelope mine were let go. In addition, 73 miners were laid off at its Spring Creek Mine, which sits in southern Montana and employs workers from northern Wyoming.

Customers buying the coal produced at the Antelope mine largely hail from the upper Midwest's industrial belt, a region also hit hard by the pandemic. Decreased electricity demand has led to less need for coal.

"Demand for coal from the Antelope mine has been significantly reduced due to continued economic challenges faced by the mine’s customer base," the spokeswoman for NTEC explained. "As conditions improve we will look to bring back the workforce and continue providing high quality coal as we support the economic recovery of the region and U.S.”

Overall employment and production in the basin’s coal industry have declined steadily since their peak in 2015, according to data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Utility companies have gradually turned to less expensive natural gas or renewable energy sources to supply electricity to customers.

The Antelope mine employed 602 employees as of March 31, according to Mining Safety and Health Administration. Workers there produced 5.4 million tons of coal this year's first quarter, compared to 6.7 million tons during the same quarter in 2019.  

Demand for coal continued to plunge in the early months of 2020 — with output during the first quarter setting a new two-decade low, according to data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The COVID-19 crisis appears to have hastened the commodity's decline.

"What you’re seeing mine by mine is that labor forces are being adjusted to the current environment, and you have the (structural) decline of coal that you're seeing on top of that, which would just hasten the need to lay people off," Rob Godby, a University of Wyoming economist, told the Star-Tribune in the days following the first wave of layoffs at NTEC's mines. "The short of it is: Under the current conditions with the structural decline, you would expect layoffs, and not insignificant layoffs, across the basin."

Forecasts released by the Energy Information Administration earlier this month predicted market conditions would likely worsen later in the year due to decreased energy demand, declines in global and domestic steel production and overall public health concerns, which has created a chilling effect on economies across the globe.

Follow the latest on Wyoming's energy industry at @camillereports

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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