Sightline Institute’s newly released model ranks coal mines for risk of closure in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin

Dan Cohn, Sightline Institute, researcher, [email protected];
Steph Routh, Sightline Institute, strategic communications manager, [email protected]


Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin has long been the country’s most productive coal mining region, but its position as the cornerstone of the American coal mining industry is declining quickly. Sightline Institute has developed a new analytical model to measure the risk of coal mine closure in the Powder River Basin based on the operations of the power plants that still buy coal from basin mines.

The model’s results show that every coal mine in the Powder River Basin saw its domestic power plant customers burn less coal in 2020 than they had averaged for the three years prior. The model also distinguishes which mines and companies saw significant decline in demand for their coal. These results reflect the deteriorating economics of coal plants and trace the impacts back to the mines that supply the coal.

“We’ve entered the twilight of the Powder River Basin coal mining industry and it’s no secret that a company will eventually close another mine,” said Dan Cohn, Sightline Institute’s researcher. “But coal companies have very little incentive to be transparent about their plans with workers, retirees, or their communities. We hope this model sheds a little bit of light and leaves people in the Powder River Basin better informed before the next mine shut down is announced.”

Since hitting peak coal production in 2010, the region’s coal output fell by a full 50% in only a decade. Last year also saw coal come in third among electricity fuel sources for the first time since statistics were recorded. Things are changing fast in the electricity sector, and Sightline’s model helps interpret that change for coal miners, workers in miner services, and elected leaders faced with raising new revenue or downsizing expenses.

Report author Dan Cohn is an energy analyst who has worked on regulatory, legal, and economic aspects of the Powder River Basin coal mining industry for seven years. He is based in Billings, Montana.

Sightline’s report can be viewed [here]. Any use of statements within the report must be properly attributed and, if online, linked. Use of Sightline-produced graphics is permitted, with proper attribution and without alteration.


Sightline Institute is a think tank providing leading original analysis of energy, economic, and environmental policy in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

May 11, 2021