(NBC News) – The first thing you notice at the Spring Creek mine in Decker, Montana, is the size. It's a sprawling, 9,000-acre site in Big Sky Country near the Wyoming line.
Giant coal hauling trucks the size of two-story buildings zip around the complex with surprising ease, considering the fact that they are carrying 255 tons of coal per trip. The coal is loaded onto mile-long trains—each car carrying more than 100 tons—that leave the mine 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
At the same time, massive 13,000-ton cranes known as draglines slowly peel back strips of earth and rock 200 feet deep to reveal the rich, black, 80-foot seam of coal below. As the coal is removed, giant machines are filling the strip back in, then moving over like a gigantic lawn mower and starting the process all over again.
Despite the dizzying amount of activity at Spring Creek, production is steadily returning to what it was after the recession forced many coal producers to cut output as demand and prices slumped. Also, many utilities switched from coal to natural gas to fire their power generators plants as gas prices fell.
But the Spring Creek mine's owner, Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy, believes coal is poised for a comeback. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA, sees a long-term horizon for coal.