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Coal: If Grand Staircase Loses Monument Protection, Will Companies Want To Mine It?

Source: U.S. Interior Department
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which the Trump administration says it intends to shrink. It's still not clear how much of the coal contained in the monument would be mined with smaller boundaries.

Everything about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is big. It’s 1.9 million acres. It’s filled with dinosaur bones and ancient history.

It also sits on lots of coal - over 22 billion tons of it, Utah’s largest coal reserve. And, if the Trump administration shrinks the monument boundaries as it's been promising for months, companies might be free to mine there again.

But that coal might just stay in the ground anyhow.

“It's been really unclear, at least for us, to figure out exactly who this might be might be benefiting,” says Taylor Kuykendall, who watches the U.S. coal industry for a business research company called S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“We're not seeing any large public demand to go out there and try to get any reserves here.”

Source: Utah Geological Survey

He says power plants don’t need as much coal as they used to - many have switched to cheaper natural gas. And less demand means lower prices.

“There's so much coal production out there,” he says, “and a lot of these guys are so desperate to sell that coal that, you know, they're taking a pretty low price or something that's relatively close to what their cost is. And I would say there's exceptions. But, in general, we're hearing a lot of talk of oversupply in a lot of the basins in the country.”

It boils down to economics.

Kuykendall says it’s a big investment to hire people, mine coal and ship it, especially in a new area. So, even though the Kaiparowits Plateau contains almost twice as much coal as the rest of Utah, the bottom line is it might not be mined.

“A lot of companies are going to be thinking about how the political environment could change between now and when that project actually started producing coal,” he says.

One more clue about the future of the Kaiparowits reserves is the past.

Just a tiny fraction of it was mined in the heyday of Utah coal, a few decades ago. Now, with prices down and costs up, it might just stay there a few eons longer, no matter what President Trump does to the national monument.

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