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Coal Decline Hits Fuel's Western Stronghold

Paradoxically, out-of-work miners in Montana and Wyoming are scrambling for new employment even as global coal markets enjoy a heyday. Driven by Asian demand, experts say, coal is projected to challenge oil as the world's top energy source within the next four years. The sole exception will be in the U.S.

The Decker lay-offs cut the mine's workforce roughly in half â¿¿ and came as a shock to Cooley and fellow miners who earned almost $30 an hour and for years sat comfortably near the top of the region's resource-based economy.

Just last year, Decker's co-owner, Ambre Energy of Australia, was promising to ramp up mining and start shipping millions of tons annually to countries such as South Korea â¿¿ part of an industry-wide trend as companies battered by the domestic market looked to foreign buyers.

But Ambre's plans to build and expand West Coast ports to load the fuel onto ships have become entangled in political opposition and bureaucratic red tape, forcing the company to push back its timeline to begin operating. Mining industry heavyweights, including Arch Coal, Inc., and Peabody Energy face the same problems.

It's been several years since coal mining peaked in the Powder River Basin, which accounts for the bulk of production from Montana and Wyoming. Only in recent months has the number of workers started to drop.

Despite the logistical hurdles, some of the basin's coal is making it to overseas markets by squeezing through the limited West Coast port capacity already available. But analysts and industry observers say those routes have essentially maxed out.

"Unless you can send (coal) by Federal Express, the export market can't take off," said Montana's former governor, Brian Schweitzer.

The Democrat spent two terms seeking to bolster the state's coal industry before leaving office this month. He predicted it will take up to five years for ports in Washington state and Oregon to come to fruition, and just as long for U.S. coal demand to rebound.

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