Coal at crux of Colorado congressional race

Future of coal becomes key issue in Colorado congressional race

 by Allen Best

Coal has become a major issue in the congressional election in the district that covers most of Western Colorado, including its ski areas.

The three-term incumbent, Scott Tipton, a Republican who has a store in the Four Corners area, charges that his opponent, Gail Schwartz, a Democrat, supported legislation as a state senator that cost 1,100 coal miners their jobs.

Scott Tipton

Scott Tipton

Other sources suggest Colorado has lost 700 coal jobs, and not necessarily because of regulations. But nobody disputes that they were well-paying jobs, many in locations where there are few alternatives. “It’s a pretty emotional thing,” says Paul Bonnifield, a resident of Yampa, a coal-dependent community located about 30 miles south of Steamboat Springs.

A former employee of the SE Group, a ski area consulting business, Schwartz formerly was a legislator from the Aspen area with a sprawling district that straddles the Continental Divide. While in the statehouse she consistently supported legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One piece of legislation supported by Schwartz in 2010 nudged Colorado’s largest electrical supplier, Xcel Energy, into converting two of its coal plants to natural gas while upgrading others to reduce emissions.

She also supported elevated renewable energy standards, including S.B. 252. That bill, adopted in 2013, mandated that electrical co-operatives in the state bump up renewables to 20 percent of their portfolios by 2020, compared to 10 percent now. Opponents said the legislation was part of a “war on rural Colorado.”

 Gail Schwartz

Gail Schwartz

Tipton now accuses Schwartz of waging a war on coal. A video released by his campaign uses Delta and the North Fork Valley towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss as a setting for this argument. It shows empty storefronts and grim faces.

But the video was fast and loose with its facts, say Schwartz supporters. In fact, according to Ed Marston, a renewable energy supporter in Paonia, one of the storefronts was an old grocery store that has a new location. In this and other ways, he said in an op/ed, Tipton’s campaign overlooked the fact that the Paonia and other communities are actually thriving with an evolving economy, despite the loss of local coal-mining jobs. Some of those lost jobs, he noted, were due to an underground fire that disabled a mine.

At a debate covered by the Pueblo Chieftain, Schwartz said the Colorado laws weren’t to blame for coal’s problems. “The natural gas industry and the free market is what created the impasse in our coal industry,” she said.

At another appearance, this time in Steamboat Springs, she accused Tipton of doing little to prepare communities for a post-coal economy. She said she wants to invest in jobs in outdoor recreation and renewables.

“What folks here can also recognize is that we will have opportunities around hydro, and geothermal, and biomass, and wind, and solar, and those jobs and opportunities and retooling that workforce, there is a path forward,” Schwartz said, according to an account by Inside Energy News. Tipton was not at that same forum but was instead represented by a surrogate who argued that the United States can be powered for another 200 years by its supplies of coal.

Most ski towns swing Democratic and liberal, and the more rural parts of the district lean Republican. In 2012, the district went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 6 percentage points, says The Denver Post.

The newspaper, however, notes that outside money has been pouring into the campaigns, with Schwartz getting $1.3 million in the last six months, in part from environmental groups and major Democratic donors. That allows her to nearly match Tipton’s campaign chest.

Inside Energy, citing the Cook Political Report as of mid-October, found the outcome “likely Republican” on election day. But John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University, told the Post that big donors are not big gamblers. “They look at the odds,” he said.

Built in the early 1960s, the Hayden Power Plant is located about 20 miles from Steamboat Springs and near the Twentymile Mine. Photo/Allen Best

Built in the early 1960s, the Hayden Power Plant is located about 20 miles from Steamboat Springs and near the Twentymile Mine. Photo/Allen Best

Who will have Colorado’s last standing coal plant?

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Bad news continues almost monthly for coal mines and plants of northwest Colorado.

Peabody Coal, operator of the big Twentymile Mine about 20 miles from Steamboat, had to get bankruptcy protection, delaying payment of property taxes to Routt County, where Steamboat Springs is located. It is an even larger taxpayer than the ski area.

Arizona-based Salt River Project owns a portion of two coal-fired power plants nearby, at Hayden and Craig. It wants a property tax reduction, arguing that the plants are functionally obsolete.

And one of three coal-fired power plants in nearby Craig is scheduled to be closed by 2022 to comply with federal laws governing ozone formation.

All of this was the background for a question given two Routt County commissioner candidates at a recent forum. The editor of the Steamboat Pilot & Today wanted to know whether the county should place increasing emphasis on transitioning to new jobs in renewable energy.

Both candidates said they want to stand by the local coal plants. But the incumbent, Tim Corrigan, a Democrat, perhaps had the more interesting answer. Instead of fighting the future, the task is to adjust to the future, he said.

“If the (federal) Clean Power Plan is implemented, we’re probably looking at closing four or five plants around Colorado. My goal is to make sure our coal mine and power plants are the last ones standing.”

Peabody seems to think there’s a future for its coal. It has recently invested substantially in developing a new seam at its Twentymile Mine. But locals report fewer coal trains through the valley on the way to plants in Mississippi.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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