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Westmoreland Coal teetering on the brink

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BILLINGS - Since 2015, six of the nation's top coal producers have declared bankruptcy and now another industry giant is teetering on the brink.

Westmoreland Coal, which owns coal mines in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Texas and Alberta and Saskatchewan, in Canada, is on the edge of insolvency, according to a new report this month from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

The report details how the fortunes of the coal giant have turned sour and suggests the company is in serious trouble.

Westmoreland is the sixth largest North American coal producer with $1.5 billion in revenue in 2016 and 3,200 employees.

But it's been losing money quarter after quarter as far back as 2012. Over the past 12 months, Westmoreland stock has lost 97 percent of its value and the company is well over a billion dollars in debt.

"Clearly investors on Wall Street are not thrilled with the performance of the company," said Seth Feaster, an energy data analyst with the IEEFA.

"Their credit rating has been falling. It's in junk territory," said Feaster.

The company has been under new leadership since this past November when CEO Kevin Paprzycki resigned suddenly after Westmoreland Coal reported losing $107 million dollars through the first three quarters of 2017.

Numerous attempts to contact Westmoreland for comment on this story went unanswered.

Westmoreland owns three Montana coal mines: the Rosebud mine at Colstrip, the Absaloka near Hardin, and the Savage Mine along the Montana/North Dakota border.

Feaster's analysis of Westmoreland's financial situation shows the company's struggles are the result of a wholesale shift in America's energy scene.

"All across this country, a lot of utilities based demands of their customers, and the cost inherent in coal-fired power are moving (utilities) away from coal," said Feaster,

"One of the biggest problems for coal is cheap natural gas. There's a lot of talk about regulation being the problem, but really cheap natural gas from fracking is what's doing in coal right now," Feaster said.

In spite of its troubles, Westmoreland wants to expand its Rosebud Mine near Colstrip.

Just before Christmas, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's office announced approval of the mine's 60-ton expansion, only to backtrack a day later, saying that announcement was in error.  

Following the false report, Westmoreland's stock price enjoyed a brief rebound.

"The owners of Colstrip have done an analysis. It is the most expensive mine around, and it's because its been around so long," said Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena.

"They started out picking best coal closest to the surface, closes to the plant where they could put it on a conveyor belt. It was cheap," said Hedges.

"As the mine has aged, they have moved further and further away into areas they never really expected to mine. They have serious overburden, which means you have to take a lot of dirt off. They have water quality problems like nobody's business," said Hedges.

Hedges has been advocating against new coal development her entire career.

"Are we going to let a company that's trading at 60 cents a share have a giant expansion of a mine to feed a plant where you know the owners are not going to be there in 10 to 15 years?" Hedges said.

"Who's going to pay for that? It's going to be the customers of these utilities who are paying for that," explained Hedges.

"I don't think anybody wants to pay for something they're not going to use, and I certainly don't want to clean up something that I never used. And that's where we're headed," said Hedges.

Read the full IEEFA report here:

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