Coal miners fear for jobs

More than 300 people gather Monday evening outside the old Mesa County Courthouse before a hearing of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Most are coal miners or people tied to the industry who oppose Xcel’s plans to switch from coal to natural gas energy sources.

More than 300 people, most of them coal miners or people tied to the industry, on Monday urged the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to reject plans to wean electricity generation off coal.

The commission heard dozens of speakers in an impromptu outdoor hearing set up on the east side of the old Mesa County Courthouse after audience members in an overflow room couldn’t hear proceedings in the main public hearing room.

“We’re going to decamp” to the outdoor setting, commission chairman Ron Binz said. Speakers stood a few feet from commissioners, who were seated on a concrete bench for more than two hours, listening to testimony. Some people stood on nearby grass strips, and a few leaned against trees and wrought iron rails.

Speakers worried about the potential effects of Xcel Energy’s plans for coal mining in northwest Colorado, which were drawn up to meet the requirements of House Bill 1365. The bill was aimed at boosting the natural gas drilling economy of the Western Slope and at fending off regulators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Xcel still can work on its submission to the commission, said Karen T. Hyde, vice president of rates and regulatory affairs fo Xcel.

“I’m listening to all of them,” Hyde said of the speakers.

Xcel intends to continue burning coal at its Hayden and Craig stations and is making technological changes to accommodate it, Hyde said.

“There’s quite a bit of misinformation,” Hyde said. “We’ll have to work to see if we can get the facts out.”

Using natural gas would prevent a “hostile federal takeover” by the EPA and help the gas and related industries, Jim West, owner of Old West Oil Field Services, told the commission.

That would come at the cost of a toll on the small communities of northwest Colorado for which coal mining is a mainstay, coal backers said.

Environment Colorado said the issue is bigger than northwest Colorado, according to spokeswoman Dana Hoffman. She urged the commission to look at the long-term costs of coal use on human health and the possibility of costly federal interference.

“Long term, it’s a good plan,” Hoffman said of the Xcel offering.

Routt County would see 16.4 percent of its tax base imperiled, former Colorado state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, told the commission.

Other counties could suffer similar losses, Taylor said, while consumers now are looking at the prospect of higher rates as a result of the changes.

Xcel is proposing to close two coal-fired plants on the Front Range and replace them with gas-fired plants.

As many as 200 direct jobs and 1,600 indirect jobs are at stake, Gene DiClaudio, president of Arch Western Bituminous Group, told the commission, stressing that those jobs are not hypothetical ones.

“These are real people who are standing before you tonight,” DeClaudio said.

One of them, 26-year-old Jeremy Guarasci, showed the commission the pick and shovel he tattooed on his neck to display how much he loves his job mining at Twenty Mile Mine near Craig.

“I’m certainly not too hopeful” that he’ll be able to keep his job and care for his family, including 5-month-old daughter, Guarasci said.

If the Xcel plan is approved, “I would have to move out of state and mine coal somewhere else,” Guarasci said.

“The coal industry is the heartbeat of the economy,” another miner, Paul Thliveris of the West Elk mine said in an interview.

Previously a restaurateur, Thliveris said he’s able to make a solid living with good benefits from a reliable company “that has the same values I do.”

His mine contributes to the tax base and support his children’s school, as well as other businesses, Thliveris said.

“We will pay a heavy price if coal is eliminated,” Thliveris said.

Coal’s time, however, has come and gone, said Matthew Hamilton, sustainability manager for the Aspen Skiing Co.

“The costs have begun to exceed the benefits,” Hamilton said.

Most Colorado coal is burned out of state, so the effect on jobs will be minimal, Hamilton said.

The legislation marks a recognition that the energy world is changing, Fred Pittenger, chief executive officer of Simplicity Solar in Grand Junction, told the commission.

“Are you going to pay my electric bill?” someone in the audience yelled at Pittenger.

“I’ll put solar on your house and it will do the job,” Pittenger yelled back.”

The commission visited the Cameo Generation Station, which will be closed at the end of this year, before the hearing, and later took off back to Denver on the Colorado State Patrol airplane.

Hearings will continue through October and the commission is to render a ruling in December.


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