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BNSF has drawn criticism from a Wyoming lawmaker amid a decline in coal shipments

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) engine pulls a train loaded with coal in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) engine pulls a train loaded with coal in Chicago, Illinois.

A state lawmaker is criticizing the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway for what he says is a failure of the railroad to meet contractual terms for coal shipments from the state. This comes as critics claim the interruptions to rail service to Powder River Basin mines cost the state over $100 million in 2022, according to U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyoming).

“The frustration there lies in [how] these railroad companies treat their customers to pay depending on what they’re shipping,” said state Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn). “The reality is coal does not receive as high a priority as other shipping goods and therefore it is subject to potential changes in freight. And so that's part of the frustration.”

BNSF is a Class I railroad that primarily serves the Midwestern, Mountain West, Southwestern, and Pacific Northwest regions of the country. As a major freight carrier, it’s one of the two major transporters of coal out of the Powder River Basin along with the Union Pacific Railroad. There was an increased demand for coal during the heights of the pandemic. Labor issues and weather events have been cited by railroads as having delayed or reduced service to customers.

“When they say that they've had issues with extreme weather events, the snowstorms really do decrease the miles per day [and] that's kind of the golden metric of how functional [a] network is,” Western said. “I totally appreciate that lots of snow can slow that down. I get it, and when they say they've had labor issues, I do believe them. But now we're continuing to drag on over this, some of this stuff…to me, that reason is only valid for so long.”

Western said he has engaged with BNSF upper management about these concerns, including with CEO Kathryn Farmer. Western said they indicated their desire to increase the number of trains leaving the state. However, if the situation doesn't improve, Western said there’s the possibility of additional legal action being taken against the railroad.

“It's gotten to a point where I don't know if you saw but NTEC [Navajo Transitional Energy Company] filed a federal lawsuit against [BNSF over shipments from their Spring Creek Mine in southern Montana near Sheridan] in federal court, [in that] they're not fulfilling their contractual obligations,” he said. “I encourage Governor Gordon to direct the attorney general to create [and] to engage in their own lawsuit to encourage BNSF to start shipping coal because their role is so vital, consequences are so serious, and they're not doing their job within the state of Wyoming.”

Wyoming Public Media made several requests for comment to BNSF for this story but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication.

“For every 100 million tons of coal, we don't mine, that's $160 million less of state revenue that we're not getting,” Western said. “If it's market forces, [in that] your customers just aren't buying it as much or as high [a] price, I can appreciate that. But when it's a factor that really shouldn't be part of the issue, I think that's when a lot of folks get frustrated and upset.”

Western voted in favor of House Bill 69 during the 67th Wyoming Legislature this year, which allows the governor and state attorney general to sue the federal government, other states, and coal-fired generation facilities that “impede Wyoming's ability to export coal, that cause the early retirement of coal-fired electric generation facilities located in Wyoming, that result in the decreased use of Wyoming coal or the closure of coal-fired electric generation facilities that use Wyoming coal.” The bill was signed into law by the governor on Feb. 15.

Concerns have also been raised after major train derailments on Class I railroads, including a train in East Palestine, Ohio that was transporting hazardous chemicals. A U.S. Senate bill aims to make railroads safer by enhancing safety standards for trains transporting hazardous materials.

Western said Union Pacific (UP), BNSF’s chief competitor, has done better with coal shipments, though they could also stand to improve. He added that there were approximately 36 trains per day at peak performance of BNSF’s coal shipments from the Powder River Basin but that has since declined, though he didn’t know the exact figures.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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