With production up, Colorado advocate declares ‘war on coal is over’ | CraigDailyPress.com

With production up, Colorado advocate declares ‘war on coal is over’

Matt Stensland/Steamboat Today

Twentymile Coal Mine off Routt County Road 27.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — An increase in production at the local, state and national level has prompted a bold statement from the leader of a Colorado organization that advocates for the coal industry.

"Certainly, the war on coal is over from a national perspective, at least from the White House and Congress," said Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Mining Association. "We think that the industry has benefited from a pretty dramatic change in the attitude and certain public policy decisions that the Trump administration has enacted."

As the demand for coal has dropped in recent years, Routt County commissioners have continued to advocate for the local industry, which pays high wages.

Twentymile Mine remains one of Routt County's largest employers with about 270 workers at the end of 2017. In 2014, when coal production at Twentymile was 6.66 million tons, the mine employed 400 people.

Twentymile produced 3.84 million tons of coal in 2017. That was an increase of 48 percent over 2016, when production bottomed out at 2.6 million tons.

In records going back to 2001, production at Twentymile peaked in 2005 with 9.37 million tons.

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In neighboring Moffat County, coal production at Colowyo Coal Mine was up 25 percent to 2.32 million tons in 2017. At Trapper Mine, production was down 13 percent to 1.58 million tons.

Colorado's six active coal mines produced 15.18 million tons in 2017, an 18.5 percent increase over 2016.

Nationally, coal production during 2017 was 73 million short tons, an increase of 45 million short tons over 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It was the largest year-over-year tonnage increase since 2001.

"It indicates that coal will continue to be an important contributor to our energy and electricity production in Colorado and the United States," Dempsey said.

Some environmental groups are hoping that is not the case.

"Twentymile and Colorado’s coal production rates are still a shadow of what they once were," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for Wild Earth Guardians. "This doesn’t reflect a war on coal. It reflects the fact that the cost of mining, transporting and burning coal increasingly can’t compete with cleaner energy sources."

The coal industry has been hit hard as energy companies diversify their portfolios with renewables and convert coal-burning plants to cheaper natural gas.

Environmental groups have also been successful in lobbying for new regulations, such as Colorado's Clean Air-Clean Jobs bill, which forces energy companies to reduce emissions.

"For Twentymile, it’s still a very rocky road ahead," Nichols said. "Groups likes ours are going to continue to make it difficult for them to expand. You can be guaranteed of that.  What’s more, with utility companies, especially Xcel, finding that the cost of new renewables is actually less than existing coal, it’s really not a matter of if, but when, coal will disappear completely."

Peabody Energy, which owns Twentymile Mine, emerged from bankruptcy last spring after reducing its debt by more than $5 billion.

They attributed the increase in coal production during 2017 to higher demand from abroad.

“U.S. coal production increased approximately 5 percent over 2016 levels, driven by a nearly 60-percent increase in exports, along with rising domestic consumption of Southern Powder River Basin Coal, (which is mined close to major rail lines in southern Wyoming),” the company states in its 2017 earnings report.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland