Up in Smoke: The Future of Coal in Northwest Colorado
By Dan Greeson
Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Craig Station power plant in Moffat County. Built between 1974 and 1984, three coalfired generating units produce up to 1,283 megawatts of power. Photo by Jim Steinberg.
The rumble of a coal train and the deafening blast of its whistle were once so common in Steamboat Springs that they were hardly noticed. But these sounds have become both startling and uncommon. Coal mining – the industry that helped breathe life into Routt County when it was first settled – has been gasping for air.
Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2016 and Twentymile, its Oak Creek-based mine, has been stuck in limbo since then.
The bankruptcy of a mine the size of Twentymile, which ships to nearby Colorado communities and locations as far away as Florida, had immediate effects on South Routt’s public institutions; its library, medical center, fire department and schools depend on Peabody’s yearly property taxes to meet their budgets.
Darci Mohr, superintendent of South Routt School District, had to ask the Colorado Board of Education for help last July after not receiving Peabody’s payment. “We only had enough money to last us through July 31,” Mohr says. “We weren’t going to be able to open our doors.”
Peabody’s unpaid property tax impacted other South Routt institutions, too. South Routt Medical Center fell $55,000 short – 30 percent of its yearly budget. While the coal industry has always been hard to predict, its recent struggles have taken industry veterans by surprise. “The industry has faced its ups and downs over the years, but this government-generated crisis is unprecedented,” says Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association.
To Sanderson, government intervention is the main reason behind coal’s slump. Senate Bill 13-252, signed by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in June 2013, set the renewable-energy bar higher for Colorado’s rural energy cooperatives. The bill increased the amount of renewable energy that rural co-ops must have in their repertoire by 2020 from 10 percent to 20 percent – a goal that coal advocates like Sanderson say is unreasonably difficult. Diane Mitsch Bush, Routt County’s state representative, disagrees.
“The co-ops have found that standard to be doable,” she says. “Senate Bill 252 does not require overnight compliance and there are many options for co-ops to meet the renewable standard of 20% set forth by the bill: solar, wind, thermal, methane and biofuel.” The influences harming the coal industry, Mitsch Bush explains, aren’t limited to legislation.
“Another factor in coal’s decline is the switch to natural gas, which is considerably less expensive than coal,” she says. “Natural gas also has pollutants, but for power plants looking to retrofit or create new facilities, natural gas is a more cost-effective choice.”
The international coal market is another factor, she adds. Countries like China are looking to other, cheaper coal sources than the U.S. For Northwest Colorado, quitting coal would mean having to replace many high-paying jobs.
“It’s hard to find jobs in the energy industry that pay as well as coal mining, which provides not only excellent wages, but also an excellent benefit package,” Mitsch Bush says.
Stuart Sanderson suggests the government take a hands-off approach, as Colorado still gets most of its electricity from coal and has plenty of it left to mine. “I am all for helping people who are put out of work, but jobs in the wind and solar industries simply do not pay anything close to what workers in mining earn,” Sanderson says. “Best not to destroy the jobs in the first place.”
“We don’t want to see lives ruined,” says Sarah McCarthy, field organizer for Conservation Colorado. While Northwest Colorado coal is relatively low in sulfur content, using coal is still a significant contributor to climate change, she says. According to McCarthy, the results of climate change in Northwest Colorado could include spring water shortages for farmers and ranchers, decreased snowpack and even spruce and aspen losses.
“The most immediate impact the coal industry has is on air quality,” McCarthy says. “Emissions have been shown to cause smog, haze, and respiratory disease. In 2013, Craig Station Power Plant was ranked the number-one carbon-polluting power plant in all of Colorado.”
Mitsch Bush and McCarthy agree that, if coal use dwindles, retraining coal workers for renewable energy jobs and alternative industries will be vital. “One option would be to court the aerospace industry, which needs small parts manufacturers,” Mitsch Bush says. “Hayden, with its airport and commercial potential, could be ideally suited for this industry.”
Despite the mass speculation, the future of coal is still up in the air. “I think that we are still looking for the ‘new normal,’” Sanderson says. He explains that coal production in Colorado will likely never reach the same levels as in 2000-2005, but the industry’s fate isn’t sealed yet. “The future of coal rests, in large part, on the development of sensible regulations that don’t create winners and losers in the marketplace,” he says.
“The coal industry has been so important to the Northwest Colorado community,” McCarthy says. “The transition to renewable energy isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s about policy-makers being aware of change and creating economic resilience.”
Peabody Energy has announced a reorganization plan for 2017, with a goal of emerging from bankruptcy within the year. Another local energy producer, Tri State Generation and Transmission, has agreed to lower emissions at Craig Station Power Plant in Craig and will be shutting down one of the plant’s three units within the next decade. With the recent election of President Donald Trump, it remains to be seen whether the new administration can honor its promise to bolster the coal industry.
Regardless of what happens to Northwest Colorado’s coal industry in the coming years, it will always be the underground engine that helped bring life to Routt County.
A Miner’s View
Coal mining veteran Jody Hampton is open to changes in the energy industry, but emphasizes that they come at a cost for miners.
Before retiring in 2015, Hampton spent 26 of his 30 years in coal at Twentymile Mine in Oak Creek. He believes that switching jobs or retraining for the renewable energy industry would be a major downgrade for many of the miners in Northwest Colorado.
“You go to work on that ski hill, you don’t get crap in terms of benefits,” he says. “Coal miners could go and learn a different trade, but they’re in coal because of the pay. I know people in Steamboat Springs who have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet.”
Twentymile took good care of Hampton – he was able to work his way up to a position with six-figure pay and company-matched 401k. Retraining for alternative energy jobs, he says, is an ugly proposition for most Routt County coal miners, many of whom have families and have lived in the area for generations.
“The areas you’d have to move to for alternative energy jobs wouldn’t be quite as attractive,” he says.
Despite his long career at Twentymile, Hampton remains open-minded about coal’s future.
“I agree 100 percent with finding cleaner energy sources than coal,” he says. “But it’s a transition period. If you want to phase coal out, it needs to be gradual. It seemed like with the past presidential administration, they wanted to shut mines down right away. It shouldn’t be, ‘One day coal’s here, the next day it’s not.’”
For Hampton and his family, coal has been synonymous with opportunity.
“I don’t want my grandkids to be miners – I want them to be better,” he says. “But coal is what will get them there.”