How can this Colorado coal town reinvent itself?

What constitutes  ‘just transition’ for a smokestack town in sea of sagebrush?

Essay/photos by Allen Best

This is from the May 30 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine. Subscriptions are $45/year.

On Tuesday afternoon several hundred people gathered at a union hall, the Denver Pipefitters Local 208, as Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a half-dozen bills into law, among them one called “Just Transition Support for Coal-Related Jobs.”

“Just transition,” is a phrase I’ve been hearing quite often in the last 3 or 4 years as goals of switching from fossil fuels to renewables have become less aspirational, the pathways now becoming more distinct. What remains unclear is what will happen to those places that have made a good living working in the coal sector.

The union hall was crowded, several hundred people in attendance, as various legislators who had sponsored the bills about to become laws took turns at the lectern, explaining why these laws were a big deal.

Most bills reflected the traditional bond between Democrats and organized labor. Among them was a bill that gave local governments the right to raise minimum wages. For that, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock put in an appearance.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bill that seeks to deliver a “just transition” to workers affected by the shift to non-carbon fuel sources.

The Just Transition bill was last. It was co-sponsored by House Speaker K.C. Becker, a Democrat from Boulder whose district includes Nederland and spans the Continental Divide to include Winter Park and the rest of Grand County.  She has been a key force in leveraging Colorado toward carbon reduction goals. She said this makes Colorado unique in its intent of looking out for the future fortunes of its workers being displaced by the necessary shift to renewables.

The law cites the 1,300 people in Colorado working in the coal mines, the doubling of renewable energy in Colorado from 2010 to 2017, and the scientific consensus about the risk of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The effects of coal plant closures on workers and communities have the potential to be significant if not managed correctly,” the law states. “Many of these jobs provide family-supporting wages and benefits. The communities that host retiring power plants may lose principal contributors to their tax base and revenue for vital local government services.”

The law creates an Office of Just Transition, to be overseen by a large committee, but with mandates for various plans and reports to the governor, the first within about 13 months, about “coal transition” communities.

That same morning I had a story posted on Energy News Network here  about a proposal from Guzman Energy, a relatively new energy wholesaler with offices in downtown Denver. It proposes to buy three coal-fired power plants owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, two in Colorado and one in New Mexico. It would close the the coal plants and substitute at least 70 percent renewable generation.

In doing this, according to Guzman Energy, it can make money and still save the members of Tri-State money. Those member co-ops provide power to Durango, Telluride, Crested Butte and Gunnison, but also Fraser and Granby, Salida and Pagosa Springs. Among others.

Will this happen? Who knows. As the Durango-based directors of La Plata Electric Association wrote in a letter to Tri-State in early April, the devil is in the details. Others I talked to on condition of background, meaning no attribution, were very supportive of renewable energy but cited other concerns.

The chief executive of United Power, the largest member co-op in the Tri-State family, got back to me too late for the story, but what John Parker said summarizes the story altogether:

“United Power takes the position that it is a very interesting concept and one that deserves a good hard look before it is rejected out of hand. After all, it is not every day you get an offer to buy some of your coal plants.”

You can read my story in Energy News Network here:

In the late 1970s, while the power plants were being built, I had worked temporarily at the daily newspaper in Craig. The town was booming  then. There had been some coal before, some oil and gas, but it was mostly a ranching center.

Then along came the Arab oil embargoes, the first in 1973. The federal government was in a hurry to provide alternatives. Kerogen deposits, thin in their carbon content but vast in their extent across northwest Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming, were going to be the answer to Arab insolence.

Grand Junction boomed. Rifle became a place thick with man-camps. Money flowed. And Colorado-Ute Electric, responsible for delivering power to 10 electrical co-operatives on Colorado’s Western Slope, set out to supply this massive new industry. It had built a coal plant at Hayden in the 1960s and at Craig it set out to erect three giant-coal-fired plants.

The first plant was completed in 1979, the second in 1981. then, about the time the th ird plant was completed came the announcement from Exxon. On on May 1, 1982, a day still remember as Black Sunday in western Colorado, it announced it was  exiting oil shale. Saudi Arabia had turned on its spigots, and gasoline had become incredibly cheap, less than $20 per barrel.

Grand Junction deflated, and Glenwood Springs got quiet. As for Colorado-Ute, it had built the power equivalent of a church for Easter Sunday. A decade later its death spiral ended in bankruptcy.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission picked up Colorado-Ute’s member co-ops and also the power plants and their 1,283 megawatts of generating capacity, one of the units in conjunction with several other utilities in the West.

Steamboat Springs, 42 miles to the east, prospered and grew with its festivals and concerns, its James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge across the Yampa River, ownership of the ski corporation passing hands several times, through it all the economy of recreation and leisure always swelling. Craig was different, a blue-collar factory town amid a sea of sagebrush. Walmart arrived, and so did a McDonalds. The old Browns Café, which had the worst coffee I have ever tasted anywhere, closed, the building razed. Craig just kept on keeping on.

Recent years have come first small signs of troubles ahead for coal. The first public impulse of Craig was one of indignation. How dare you suggest that what we’re doing for a living is anything less than completely pure and innocent? Denver has dirty air; our air is far cleaner!

I detected this  underlying assumption on a trip in late May in an educational display along the highway near the turnoff to the power plants. More than 99 percent of emissions were pollutant free, declared the display, a product of the various utilities but also with the insignia of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for selling the subterranean fossil fuel reserves.

A few minutes later, shooting a photograph along a county road at the entrance to the power plant, I heard shouting. The guard was yelling at me to get off private property. I doubt that I was. I think it was a reflection of how touchy all this is. Craig feels under fire.

But even five years ago or so, when I had an essay in The Denver Post that mentioned Craig, I got a glimmer that there were more thoughtful reactions. A city official sent an e-mail expressing exasperation that not enough of his fellow residents were accepting the inevitability that the coal economy was going away.

Coal has paid well. The Yampa Valley Data Partners in 2015 told me that coal sector jobs paid $80,000 to $120,000—no advanced education necessary. The minimum wage certainly beat that of even the highest-priced ski town. For that matter, Peabody Coal—this was before its bankruptcy—paid triple the property tax that the Steamboat ski area did.

Two years ago, spending another night in Craig, I was told that high school students had begun to think about alternatives to going to work at the power plant. That was in August 2016. Then came the election. Craig was euphoric, I am told, when Donald Trump became president with his promises to bring back coal.

Except, of course, no president is bringing back coal, certainly not in Colorado with its new legislation that establishes clear benchmarks for decarbonizing the economy, and not even in West Virginia or Wyoming.

In Craig, I am told, the euphoria has worn off. There’s still a sign in the town “Coal Keeps Our Lights On.” At the Moffat County Fairgrounds, where a roping competition was underway, a pickup truck declared “Coal. Guns. Freedom.”

There have been ongoing discussions of how the community will reinvent itself. It’s just a matter of time, one business proprietor told me, if still relatively distant, 10 or 20 years.

Based on my story that came out two days later, I’d say it might be sooner than 10 years.

This same proprietor said something that made sense to me. Craig, he said, must reinvent itself organically. A state agency can’t provide the answers.

I doubt that renewables will fill the void. It has sun, it has wind, but neither in remarkable quantities.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter several years ago suggested that Craig should look to Salida for answers. Salida as recently as 1981 was a blue-collar town, full of miners making good wages commuting to the Climax molybdenum mine 70 miles away. It has become a town of recreation and leisure and, I hear from an old friend, more fierce with squabbles than ever before. But it does have a strong enough economy that it has an affordable housing problem.

Salida and Craig both have rivers, but Salida also has a string of 14,000-foot peaks and a downtown lined with Victorian-era buildings. Craig has lots of sagebrush in its backyard and a downtown that is utterly forgettable.

It does have wonderful wildlife, elk herds and pronghorn and much more. It’s the sort of place where they never take down those banners supplied by the beer companies, “Welcome Hunters.”

Can Craig reinvent itself based on this different relationship to the landscape, one based not on what is underground and put into the air, but what can be seen? The experience economy of resort towns?

I’m making no bets on this outcome. For all of its population growth, Colorado is full of places that have become ghosts of their former selves or abandoned altogether. Pueblo, a town with strong ties to Crested Butte, which used to supply coal for John Rockefeller’s steel mill, isn’t a ghost of its former self. But it is 10th in population now among Colorado’s cities where for much of the 20th century it was the state’s second largest city

Returning from Craig to Denver, we drove through Steamboat, a place that has prospered greatly in the 40 years since I worked there, and then Kremmling, which has changed very little.

Craig will change. One coal plant is already scheduled to go down in by 2025. The other two will almost certainly close within a decade. The economics of renewable energy are just that powerful.

What can Colorado’s state government do to create a just transition? I have my doubts, but I am struck by the good intentions of state legislators in establishing their effort to “support a just and inclusive transition.”

But, as a journalist, I must observe that Trump never vowed to bring back print, nor have legislators ever worried about a just transition from print journalism to digital. We have had to reinvent our business models, with only partial success. I wish better luck for Craig.

The story was corrected to reflect the correct position of State Rep. KC Becker. She is speaker of the House. 


Allen Best

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