Routt County to fight state agency about coal power plant decision
August 18, 2010
Steamboat Springs — The Routt County Board of Commissioners voted, 2-1, on Tuesday to join a lawsuit seeking to force a judicial review of the recent decision by Xcel Energy and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to convert several Front Range coal-burning power plants to natural gas in an effort to reduce pollution.
Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush dissented.
All three county commissioners are concerned that the decision would reduce the demand for coal mined in Northwest Colorado. However, Mitsch Bush said that although she joined her colleagues in their disappointment with the lack of transparency in the decision-making process by the Air Quality Control Commission, she also felt she lacked the information — including by how many tons the demand for Routt County coal would be reduced — to undertake a suit against a state agency.
"I have extreme concerns about being party to a lawsuit against the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission. I don't think we heard all sides here. I'm not really convinced the suit really would be in the best interests of the people of Routt County," Mitsch Bush said. "We need calculations on how many jobs will be lost in Routt County in this change."
Commissioner Doug Monger saw little risk in undertaking the suit.
"Part of our job as commissioners is to make sure other agencies are doing the right thing," Monger said. "We ask the question. That's how we find out."
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Monger said he'd been told that an amount of coal that is the equivalent of a large number of megawatts of electrical power would be subtracted from Routt County's economy if the change were put into effect. However, mining industry Web pages show that the conversion of tons of coal to megawatts is complicated by the widely ranging energy values of coal from different mines.
The commissioners acknowledged they don't know how many tons of coal production Northwest Colorado stands to lose.
The Associated Press reported Aug. 13 that Xcel Energy is proposing to spend $1.3 billion to convert four coal-burning power plants to natural gas and close another. The intent is to meet the requirements of a new Colorado law — the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act — aimed at shifting the source of the state's energy in order to reduce emissions of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury.
Mitsch Bush said she was frustrated that the Air Quality Control Commission didn't investigate more fully the role wind and solar power could play in the effort, as well as taking into account Northwest Colorado's relatively clean-burning coal.
"I'm on record opposing the (new law) that set all this in motion," Mitsch Bush said. She added that she felt from the beginning that the law stacked the deck in favor of natural gas against coal.
Monger said the Moffat County Board of Commissioners already had voted to join the suit, which would be advanced by the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado. Delta County did not vote to join the suit, but added its support. He expects the Rio Blanco County Board of Commissioners to vote as soon as Friday. Other members include Mesa and Garfield counties, as well as the municipalities of Rangely, Hayden and Rifle.
The Routt County commissioners met in executive session Monday with their legal counsel. Much of the closed session was devoted to a conference call with attorney Paul Seby, who would represent the Associated Governments in the suit.
Mitsch Bush said it made her uncomfortable that Seby said his legal fees would be paid for by the Colorado Mining Association.
Asked if he felt the same way, Monger said, "No, he represents our interests, and we still have control of the matter."
Monger is vice chairman of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, and Hayden Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Grobe is the chairman, according to the organization's Web page.
Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said the Associated Governments suit is justified by the lack of clarity in how the decision to convert the Front Range plants was reached. In addition, she said she was frustrated that the Air Quality Control Commission declined in July to enter into a government rule-making process that is similar to arbitration.
"The way I understand it," Stahoviak said, "is that by enjoining with the request for judicial review, we'd be making it known that we're concerned the (Air Quality Control Commission) didn't want to enter into emergency rule making. I believe we need to (consider that) Routt County's interest in the coal mining industry is huge. They are a huge property tax generator."
She added that she did not see a downside to entering the lawsuit.
Seby was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.
His Web page at the site of his firm, Moye White, reflects that he previously has represented Twentymile Coal Co. and Colowyo Coal Co., which are major producers in this part of the state.
Peabody Energy won Routt County's approval in July for building the new Sage Creek Coal Mine southeast of Hayden as it begins to phase down production at nearby Twentymile Coal Co. A company official told the commissioners it would wait to decide whether to install a highly efficient long-wall mining system at the new mine until it knows more about the future of its contracts.