Denver The future of Twentymile Coal Co., Routt County’s top taxpayer, briefly took center stage Friday in a windowless room in downtown Denver, where state electricity officials discussed how to balance clean-air requirements with the economic foundation and power generation of coal.
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger left Routt County before the sun rose and sat in that room for several hours, waiting to testify before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. The PUC held hearings last week to weigh potential benefits and impacts of Xcel Energy’s plan to implement House Bill 1365, the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act adopted this year by the state Legislature and Gov. Bill Ritter.
The legislation sets emission-reduction standards to be met by 2017 and would, among other actions, convert or shut down some coal-fired Front Range power plants in favor of natural gas.
Monger said that conversion could cut the market for Twentymile coal in half. The West Routt County mine produced about 7.8 million tons of coal in 2009, about 4 million tons of which went to Xcel power plants on the Front Range, he said.
Monger told the PUC’s three members that the coal-mining industry brings about $14 million in annual property taxes to Routt County. Those dollars help fund school districts, fire districts and other governmental entities.
“Twentymile Coal is the No. 1 taxpayer in all of Routt County, by a sizable amount,” Monger said.
He added that the coal industry provides about 500 jobs in Routt County and about 400 in Moffat County.
But one of Northwest Colorado’s oldest economic pillars faces serious challenges.
“There’s a target on our back, for sure,” Monger said.
Environmental groups such as the Colorado Environmental Coalition strongly are supporting the reduction of coal-fired power. Some members of the industry itself are acknowledging a downward trend — Terry Ross, western region vice president for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said the country is facing “9 to 18 percent less electricity generation coming from coal by 2035.”
Despite Ross’ presence Friday, Monger said clean coal largely has been spurned in Colorado’s clean-air debates.
“Nothing, not anywhere in House Bill 1365 … was there any discussion of retrofitting these plants into clean coal technology, which through the plan can achieve the same amount of compliance,” Monger said.
The PUC’s discussions Friday included whether Colorado mines, including Twentymile, could replace a decreased coal market on the Front Range by selling to other markets, even overseas, where booming economies in China and India are making those countries net importers of coal.
Ross countered that Colorado’s location, far from ports for shipping overseas, puts the state at a distinct disadvantage for reaching faraway markets.
PUC member Matt Baker asked Monger what impact the oil and natural gas industries have on Routt County jobs.
“Very little,” Monger said, before emphasizing that, in his opinion, a transition from coal to natural gas would have a negative impact on employment. “We firmly believe that we’re sacrificing long-term mining jobs for short-term drilling jobs and short-term construction jobs.”
The PUC has until the end of the year to approve an Xcel Energy plan for implementation of House Bill 1365.
“Once the plan is adopted, then Xcel will move forward toward implementing,” said state Sen. Al White, a Hayden Republican.
In April, White said the legislation could cost as many as 200 jobs at Twentymile.