Canary in the coal mine: As officials sound the death knell for coal, Northwest Colorado fights to hold onto its way of life
Part 1: A just transition
Editor’s note: This story is the first of a three-part series exploring the local effort to achieve a just transition from coal. Part one reports on the recent public outreach campaign from the newly formed Transition from Coal Advisory Committee. It also analyzes the decline in the fossil fuel industry and the challenges that trend poses for coal-reliant communities in Routt County. Part two, to be published in April, takes a deeper look into what a just transition may look like and how other communities have dealt with the disappearance of coal. Part three, to be published in May, explores local efforts to diversify the economy and pave the way for a prosperous life after coal.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Gov. Jared Polis walked into a packed Hayden Town Hall on Friday, March 6 — every seat filled with an unusual menagerie of blue-collar workers from local coal mines and power plants, government officials and concerned residents — an unspoken tension hung in the air.
Many in the room consider Polis and his progressive policies, particularly his commitment to make Colorado fossil fuel-free by 2040, as a threat to their way of life. His reason for being there did not calm any of their fears.
He was there to hear their thoughts on an unsettling but increasingly inevitable truth: the coal industry, a primary source of prosperity for much of the Yampa Valley for more than a century, is dying. Not even the state’s commander in chief had an answer for the thousands of residents who would face the consequences.
Donning his typically casual attire of sneakers and a sky blue polo, Polis took a seat next to Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck, chair of the newly formed Just Transition from Coal Advisory Committee. The meeting was part of a weeklong public outreach effort to educate people about the committee and gain feedback about how the state government could partner with local communities to mitigate the fallout from coal divestment.
The committee itself is the result of a bill passed last year that tasks members with helping to develop a plan to retrain workers for high-quality jobs, diversify the economies of coal-reliant communities and find a way to fund it all.
Out with coal, in with renewables
Though some claim the coal industry is not a lost cause, it is hard to argue with the numbers. Coal production has been declining across the country for the last decade, owing to a growing popularity of alternative energy sources and Byzantine regulations that have choked coal’s economic feasibility.
By the end of this year, coal production is expected to dip to under 600 million tons — the lowest amount since 1973, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. By next year, the administration predicts that renewable energies will surpass coal for the first time ever, providing 24% of the nation’s power.
Northwest Colorado has already felt the brunt of this recession. In January, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced plans to close all of its coal-fired power plants and mines in New Mexico and Colorado by 2030. That means the end of Craig Station Units 2 and 3 and Colowyo Mine in Moffat County. Hayden Station, owned by Xcel Energy, could shut down in the next 20 years. Twentymile Coal Co. in Routt County has seen an 88% drop in its federal mineral lease totals since 2002, according to data from the Routt County Accounting office.
Both Xcel and Tri-State have committed to transitioning their grids to renewable energies in an increasingly environmentally conscious nation.
On paper, a switch to cleaner renewable energy can sound like a panacea for the planet’s worst environmental crises. Many, including scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, argue that fossil fuels must be completely abandoned in the next one or two decades to avoid the 2.7-degree global warming that would cause “long-lasting or irreversible changes.”
Among the most concerning consequences include catastrophic sea level rises, loss of ecosystems and the displacement of entire communities, all of which have already been documented. In January, the United Nations adopted new rules to protect climate refugees, putting into law a term that has only recently become necessary to acknowledge this new type of asylum-seeker.
But for the communities that rely on the fossil fuel industry for high-paying jobs, public infrastructure and a sense of identity, climate action presents its own unique form of displacement.
The day before Polis’ visit, more than 100 people crowded into a conference room at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport for a town hall-style meeting with the Just Transition from Coal Advisory Committee. Following an introduction of the committee’s mission — “to develop a thoughtful, fair, compassionate transition for communities and workers,” in the words of Chairman Dennis Dougherty — the crowd broke into separate discussion groups.
Facilitators shepherded the various tables through conversations to flesh out their concerns over coal’s demise and any ideas they might have to replace the loss of the industry.
Many balked at the idea of replacing the prosperity of coal.
The Hayden Station and Twentymile Mine provide 2.3% of the county’s jobs, according to Mallory Huggins with the Keystone Policy Center, an independent think tank based in Summit County.
They are among the area’s highest-paying jobs. The power plant pays upwards of $90,000 per year, more than double the salary of the average worker in Routt County. The mine pays similarly high wages without the need for a college degree.
Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton, who sat at a table with a group of coal miners, said they have no illusions that the loss of coal would be devastating, even with a just transition plan.
“They know you can’t replace coal jobs. These are good jobs,” she said. “They don’t see much of a future for Hayden without coal.”
Ideas arose to expand other industries, such as outdoor recreation or hemp, but those jobs would not pay nearly the same wages as the mines and power plants.
It is not just the money from paychecks people worry about. Xcel is the county’s largest taxpayer, according to Huggins, accounting for 4.5% of the county’s entire assessed value. Property taxes collected from the coal industry are lifelines for smaller municipalities like Hayden and Oak Creek.
In Hayden, about 60% of public programs, from the local school district to the West Routt Fire Protection District, are funded through those property taxes, Huggins said.
Wayne DeLuca, a maintenance crew foreman with the Hayden Station and member of the West Routt fire department, could not imagine how the town could continue staffing a paid force of firefighters if that money disappears.
“If this facility and mine goes down, we are not going to be able to provide those essential services,” DeLuca said.
Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan painted a similarly grim picture for South Routt, the area he represents, which gets about half of its public funding from the coal industry. Officials there are bracing for major cuts in services as a result of the energy transition.
“Without the library, without a medical center, without a well-functioning fire department, communities like Oak Creek and Yampa will be really handicapped,” Corrigan said.
When it came to brainstorming solutions, the discussion turned sparse.
Hayden Town Manager Mathew Mendisco did not sugarcoat the graveness of the situation.
“When those direct revenues go away, we don’t have a plan. We can’t find a plan fast enough,” he said.
An uncertain path forward
For now, the idea of a just transition is in an infancy stage. While no clear solutions arose from the week of meetings, Mendisco was optimistic that at least Routt County has several years before any major losses are expected to occur.
“The best thing we have going for us is time. That is the one advantage we have,” Mendisco said.
Back at the meeting with Polis on Friday, people proposed a range of alternative industries in which to invest to diversify the local economy. Corrigan proposed repealing the Gallagher Amendment, which places a heavier property tax burden on commercial businesses, to garner more revenue from a boon in residential housing taking place across Routt County.
Polis tried to paint a bright future by focusing on the competitive advantages residents could leverage.
“You have some great assets, right?” he said. “You have amazing public land. You have recreational opportunities.”
He described other assets, such as a skilled workforce, railroad infrastructure and high quality of life.
These ideas imply the need for a profound transformation of Routt County, which some are simply not willing to accept.
DeLuca, the power plant worker and firefighter, argued that mining could continue without causing severe environmental degradation, citing the development of carbon capture technology to sequester harmful emissions.
Such an idea shows how deeply coal is embedded in the local way of life. To ask someone like DeLuca to abandon his career is akin to asking a rancher to surrender his land.
As he said, “I’m not ready to give up on coal.”
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