Mountains towns speak at listening sessions about federal coal leases
by Allen Best
GOLDEN, Colo. – Mountain towns were among those talking as the U.S. Department of Interior held listening sessions about its coal-leasing program on Tuesday afternoon in metropolitan Denver.
A lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians has forced the federal agency to reexamine its leasing procedures for coal in Colorado and elsewhere. About 40 percent of coal comes from federally leased deposits, especially in Wyoming, Colorado, and other Western states. Coal itself is still responsible for nearly 40 percent of electricity.
The issue has become a fulcrum for broader questions about coal.
“What is important is that taxpayers know what subsidies are being given and to whom,” said Colorado State Rep. KC Becker, whose district straddles the Continental Divide from deeply liberal Boulder to equally conservative North Park.
Then came several dozen speakers from the coal industry. Stuart Sanderson, who heads the Colorado Mining Association, led off his three-minute allotment by talking about “clean, Colorado coal.” Another speaker said that the coal industry is “not just paying its fair share, it’s paying more than its fair share.” The message about “reliable, affordable” electricity echoed again and again. “Cheap electricity is what makes this country great,” said one.
Many from Colorado’s coal-mining communities of northwestern Colorado and the North Fork of the Gunnison (Paonia area) wore big, yellow buttons that said, “I Dig.”
One speaker, from Steamboat Springs, credited coal with being largely responsible for the hospital, for schools, and for recreational amenities.
Barry Ingold, senior vice president of generation for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the wholesale supplier for many of Colorado’s mountain towns, continued the theme.
“This discussion regarding an increase in the federal coal royalty rate is nothing more than a continuing effort to discourage the use of coal as an affordable and reliable source of power generation,” he said.
Then came those who talked about the external costs of coal. Keith Baker, a town trustee in Buena Vista, Colo., talked about shorter irrigation seasons, shorter ski seasons, and other climate changes now being documented. “Coal does have a cost. We are seeing it in our smaller communities,” he said. “It’s time to start transitioning to a post-carbon future.”
Another speaker from Alta, Utah, echoed the concerns. The weather determines the economy, and the weather lately has been bringing higher temperatures, more winter-time rain, and spooky wildfire. Like many that followed, he argued that federal coal leasing rates need to factor in the cost of climate change.
Oliver Young took it one step further. “I know people disagree with me, but I think coal should be kept in the ground.” Another speaker from metropolitan Denver, who identified himself as a retired engineer and physicist, said that coal has constituents that are too valuable to be burned as they are now.
Environmental groups planed a rally in advance of the hearing, renting a room at the Denver Marriot West, where the listening session was held. Bicycles towing signs prowled the parking lot as attendees arrived. They were identified as belonging to the Mountain Pact.
Diana Madson, a Yale School of Forestry graduate, created the Tahoe-based organization. Last spring, she secured letters from a number of ski and other mountain towns in the Rocky Mountains to argue against the current leasing system—and by extension coal altogether. The royalty requirements, she said, are too low, the bonding requirements too loose. “Our mountain communities are bearing the growing cost of climate change,” she said.