Grand Junction Legislation aimed at cleaning up Denver's air and turning Colorado into a model state for clean energy and jobs is feared as a job killer for the Western Slope's coal country.
Sign-waving coal miners stole the show from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on Monday night as they rallied outside the old Mesa County Courthouse. They gathered before the commission's first hearing on Xcel Energy's plan to close or retrofit some of its Front Range coal-fired plants. The changes are being made to comply with the Colorado Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.
"Rock on for coal," yelled Twentymile Coal miner Jeremy Guarasci, who sported a miner's pick-and-shovel tattoo on his neck and a sign reading, "Lost Coal, Lost Jobs." He and other miners and their supporters — many from mines around Craig and Steamboat Springs — one after another denigrated the act that was passed in April with bipartisan support.
That act requires Xcel Energy to cut nitrogen-oxide emissions by up to 80 percent from several Front Range coal plants by the end of 2017. Xcel plans to do that by retiring or retrofitting 900 megawatts of its coal-fired capacity and replacing it with natural gas, solar and wind energy.
The coal industry claims that will cost more than 500 jobs.
During a hearing that included less-emotional, sworn testimony, more than 400 politicians, environmentalists, miners, along with drillers from the Western Slope's oil and gas fields who stand to benefit from the legislation, overflowed a gilded hearing room.
Many had driven hours to the only hearing that will be held outside of Denver and weren't happy when the sound system failed.
PUC director Ron Binz moved the hearing outdoors. He and the other two commissioners perched on a concrete planter and took testimony from a crowd that spilled across the street.
David Ludlum, director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, spoke up for the state's 6,000 natural-gas employees and contractors, saying the legislation will boost the state as "a leader in natural-gas exploration."
The Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act doesn't just have two energy industries disagreeing. Republicans are also at odds over the legislation, passed just 17 days after its introduction in order to beat the federal Environmental Protection Agency's end-of-year deadline.
Not hitting that deadline with a plan for cutting emissions could have meant federal mandates for Colorado.
Republican state legislators Sen. Josh Penry of Grand Junction and Rep. Ellen Roberts of Durango sponsored the bill along with Democrats Sen. Bruce Whitehead of Hesperus and Rep. Judy Solano of Brighton.
"I wish Josh Penry would show his face here," said a woman in the crowd after former GOP state senator Jack Taylor of Routt County decried "the back-door, behind-the- scenes deal" and suggested the PUC "kick this thing out and start all over again."
The PUC will hold its next — and last — hearing on Xcel's plan in Denver on Sep. 23.
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 or firstname.lastname@example.org