H/t Lighthouse Resources, Inc.
All 98 Furloughed Decker Coal Miners Return to Work this Morning, per HR
Amidst widespread coal layoffs throughout the Powder River Basin in recent months and an industry rocked by plummeting prices and decreased demand, Decker Mine reverses course, offering a but of good news for the future of western coal.
After laying off nearly 30% of its workforce earlier this month, all 98 furloughed Decker Coal Company employees returned this morning after 19 days without work, just as Leonard Wolff, general manager, had promised would happen when the layoffs first took place.
In early May, Decker had joined the growing number of PRB coal mines to make work force reductions in response to weakening market conditions for coal during COVID-19. On May 8, the company announced it was furloughing 98 miners from its Decker Coal Mine in southern Montana until May 26, citing decreased demand in the wake of the pandemic. The difference was, however, as Wolff told County 17 in a conversation two weeks ago, that the layoffs were temporary and Decker would be bringing the employees back by June for scheduled production.
And, as of this morning, they’ve done just that.
“It’s defined and finite,” Wolff told County 17 by phone May 13. “We’ll start the first of June with shipment and export and export, which we’ve got boats lined up for that, and then our domestic customers, we should be delivering to them June 1 also.”
The Decker furloughs came shortly after layoffs at other mines including 300 workers at the North Antelope Rochelle mine in March, 60 miners at Kiewit’s Buckskin Coal Mine, and the layoffs in April of 73 miners at Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC)’s Spring Creek Mine. The layoffs were further punctuated by BNSF Railway, which services several PRB coal mines, announcing 130 layoffs and the closure of its Gillette and Guernsey facilities.
Decker Coal Mine, which is located in the northwest portion of the PRB in Big Horn County of southern Montana, just north of the Wyoming border has been in operation since the 1970s, producing 390 million tons of coal for domestic and international markets and reserves up to 235 million tons, per information provided by the company. During Q1 2020, the mine employed 164 workers and produced over 1 million tons (900 metric tons) of coal, according to U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Mine Employment and Coal Production data.
During the past five decades, the mine has changed hands repeatedly and is now owned by parent company, Lighthouse Resources Inc., formerly Ambre Energy North America, Inc. The company also owns and operates thermal coal mines in and around the PRB and is currently developing port export infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest.
Previously, the Decker Mine had been a Kiewit Mining Group venture, which also owns Buckskin Mining Company, 10 miles north of Gillette.
The layoffs had been necessary, Wolff said, because the mine’s domestic customers had temporarily stopped accepting shipments.
Many of the mine’s 98 employees who today returned to work, as confirmed by the company early Tuesday morning, are Wyoming citizens residing in Sheridan County, who commute the 16 miles to Montana to work.
The vibe at Decker Coal Mine this morning could be described as uplifting, according to Donna Baker, with Decker’s human relations department, in an industry rife with bad news.
“It’s very exciting,” she said, deferring to Wolff, who is out on vacation, for public comment.
And given the state of the industry, a rare glimmer of positive news given the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)’s latest Short-term Energy Outlook report predicting a 22% drop in coal production in 2020 over the previous year as well as a 23% decrease in average coal consumption, down to 453 MMst in 2020.
The decrease, primarily driven by a 24% decline in electric power sector consumption and low natural gas prices, might not necessarily equate a long-term market downturn, according to EIA officials, who predict that 2021 coal consumption is expected to increase by 10% to 498 MMst as a result of stronger natural gas prices and an overall economic recovery conducive to rising electricity generation.
Perhaps, Decker Coal Mine serves as the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to the future of the PRB, offering a rare bit of hope in an otherwise fickle industry governed by a broadening consumer base courting renewables.
Jen Kocher contributed to this story.