Eleven state and local officials and representatives from the energy industry met Wednesday in Craig to discuss state legislation that could put area coal miners out of work.
H.B. 10-1365, also known as the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, was passed in the Colorado state legislature in March 2010 to assist Xcel Energy with its plans to convert three Front Range power plants from coal to natural gas by 2018.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission, a third-party agency that provides oversight of utility companies on behalf of the public, had the authority to approve or block Xcel’s plan.
The PUC approved the plan in December 2010 with an added stipulation that Xcel contribute to a worker-retraining fund for displaced coal miners through “ratepayer funds.”
However, the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel, an agency that appeals utility rates and rulemaking matters in the court system on behalf of the public, stepped in to challenge PUC’s authority to make Xcel provide worker-retraining funds through increased customer fees.
Keith Hay, demand side analyst representing the PUC, said because of the OCC’s claim the word “ratepayer” was removed from the agencies approval letter upon reconsideration in March.
Hay said PUC’s new role is to investigate options for the structure and funding of a worker-retraining program and report to the Commission by the end of the year with recommendations.
Local officials fear a drop in coal production and subsequent job losses could be significant in Moffat and Routt counties over the next few years because of H.B. 10-1365.
But, Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership Director Darcy Owens-Trask doesn’t want local coal miners to lose hope.
“We want to be real careful that we don’t cause a panic,” Owens-Trask said. “We’re planning for the worst, but still hoping for the best.”
The purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to begin the process of exploring other ways to fund worker-retraining efforts if the Yampa Valley finds itself with a large number of displaced coal miners who will need to learn new skills to earn a “livable wage.”
Rosemary Pettus, director of the Colorado Workforce Center in Frisco, highlighted a potential source of funding through the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998.
WIA, which was passed under President Bill Clinton, replaced the Job Training Partnership Act to provide workforce investment programs at the federal, state and local levels.
However, Pettus conceded that WIA funds are limited and federal assistance grants are extremely competitive in the current economic environment.
Owens-Trask agreed and criticized WIA legislation as being out-of-date and inadequate to address worker retraining, considering the national unemployment rate is 10-percent.
Robin Scheuerman, accounting representative for Western Fuels-Colorado, LLC in Nucla located in western Montrose County, asked why the state isn’t taking a more proactive stance on the issue considering energy companies represent the highest taxed industry in the state.
“We are the highest taxed industry in the state of Colorado and across the nation, as well,” Scheuerman said. “Out of every dollar, 85 cents is spent on county and state taxes.
“We see hospitals and schools that benefit from the taxes we pay. How can there be no funding for retraining so we can take care of our miners?”
Scheuerman said her company employs 100 workers out of a community of 750 residents.
“We are very susceptible to losing our jobs in the next two years,” Scheuerman said. “If we lose our mine, our town will dry up and blow away.”
Although the idea of providing worker retraining so displaced miners can earn a livable wage sounds good on paper, Craig City Council member Gene Bilodeau reminded the group that the coal industry provides some of the most lucrative jobs in the area.
“Dislocated worker funding would be imperative to this area if needed,” Bilodeau said. “But, I think it misses the point that our coal workers earn much more than a livable wage.
“So, just aspiring to get to a livable wage is really not acceptable.”
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger raised a similar point and argued there cannot be a conversation about worker retraining without also talking about worker relocation.
“I’m struggling because these are specialty workers,” Monger said. “I don’t see how retraining those people will keep them here because there aren’t any available jobs to train into.
“I don’t see how we can have this conversation without talking about relocation because in my mind it is an ultimate fact.”
Also in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting were Audrey Danner, Moffat County commissioner; Kate Nowak, executive director of Yampa Valley Data Partners; Jay Fetcher, regional director for U.S. Senator Mark Udall; David Griffin, State Energy Sector Partnership project manager for the Colorado Department of Labor & Unemployment and Walter Wair, plant director at Hayden Station.
A follow-up meeting has been tentatively scheduled for Oct. 20 at 1 p.m. in Steamboat to give those in attendance time to consider additional questions and potential solutions to the H.B. 10-1365 problem.
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