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Wyoming coal mine is shedding jobs ahead of the power plant's coal-to-gas conversion

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A Wyoming coal mine that supplies fuel to a power plant that will be converted to burn gas plans to lay off 19 workers next month, the latest of thousands of jobs lost in the beleaguered U.S. coal industry in recent years.

Fifteen workers at the Black Butte Mine were told Monday and four more Wednesday they would lose their jobs in mid-December, mine manager Steve Gili said Wednesday.

Most are heavy equipment operators but some are mechanics and other mine staff. No additional layoffs are planned at the mine where the workforce will shrink from 132 to 113, said Gili, who declined to comment further.

While northeastern Wyoming is home to eight of the 10 most productive U.S. coal mines, Black Butte in the southwestern part of the state is a smaller operation. The mine east of Rock Springs in the sparsely populated Red Desert produces 2.5 million tons (2.3 million metric tons) of coal a year primarily to feed PacifiCorp's nearby Jim Bridger power plant.

That's less coal than the northeastern Wyoming mines produce in a week. Still, the announced layoffs drew the ire of state officials who blamed President Joe Biden's administration for not facilitating the mine's expansion.

“It is disheartening and disappointing to have the Black Butte Mine lay off employees at any time but this is particularly troubling as we enter the holiday season," Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, said in a statement.

The power plant could continue to burn coal under plans to expand carbon capture and sequestration in Wyoming, Gordon added.

Nationwide, coal has been in decline as utilities have installed more renewable energy and converted coal-fired plants to be fueled by cheaper and cleaner-burning gas. At the Jim Bridger power plant, Portland, Oregon-based PacifiCorp plans to convert two generators to gas next year followed the remaining two in 2030.

Such trends have sapped U.S. coal demand and production has fallen from 1.3 billion tons (1.2 billion metric tons) a decade ago to 870 million tons (780 million metric tons) in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

U.S. coal mining employment has shrunk by half over that period to about 40,000 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite the slump, West Virginia added 1,500 coal mining jobs in 2022 and employed by far more miners than any other U.S. state at 13,000, which is 30% of the total U.S. coal-mining employment, according to the Energy Information Administration.

___

John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.

Mead Gruver, The Associated Press