If one place could be called the nation’s capital for energy production, that place is Gillette, Wyoming. The sixteen coal mines in the Powder River Basin currently supply 30% of the nation’s electricity. The three mines near Gillette employ 10% of surrounding Campbell County. One such employee is Dave Olson, a Senior Geologist for Alpha Coal West, which operates the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in the area. A fourth-generation miner that has worked all over the interior West, Dave showed us the operating Eagle Butte pit mine and gave us a crash course in economic geology and the process of coal mining, from assessing reserves to mining to generating electricity. Some of the best coal, Dave explains, has too much overburden (rock above the coal seam) to be mined profitably, limiting the economic supply and quality of coal.
According to Dave, the Clean Air Act triggered coal production in the Powder River Basin in the 1970s because it is “clean coal,” containing fewer sulfate pollutants than coal from Appalachia. Dave is pleased to share how clean Alpha’s mining operation is, with comparatively low-polluting coal, minimal dust during transportation, and reclamation efforts that often leave the land in better condition than before mining.
Like it or not, coal is currently an important component of our national energy portfolio. Gillette is a perfect place to understand how coal, when converted to electricity, powers the devices that enable you to read this.
By Elizabeth Greenfield