Colorado begins switch from coal to natural gas

Though Gov. Bill Ritter signed the bill Monday, it will be at least two years before western Colorado drillers see a benefit from the measure to convert coal-fired power plants to natural gas.

That’s because Xcel Energy now has to go before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to iron out details not only for how it would convert its aging plants to gas, but also when.

In the meantime, drillers should prepare to handle the expected 15 percent increase in production, said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.

“This will be a boon over the long term for our economy,” said Penry, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It should be called the Clean Air-Clean Jobs-More Drilling Act. That’s good for rural economies like our own on the Western Slope.”

Perhaps there will be more drilling in the state, but there’s no guarantee of that, said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, which represents the coal industry.

What is guaranteed is the 2.6 million tons of coal that currently feeds two of the Denver plants slated to be converted to natural gas suddenly won’t be going anywhere, he said.

As a result, miners who dig that coal, railroad workers who transport it and utility workers who shovel it into the plants could be out of work, Sanderson said.

“I don’t believe any politician can assert that this will not have a negative impact on coal mining,” he said. “I have yet to see any analysis underpinning the rather specious claims that have been made by the proponents to support their contention that it won’t hurt production.”

While House Bill 1365 is supposed to give the PUC and Xcel the option of finding the least expensive solution to meeting stricter federal air quality standards that are expected to come, Sanderson said he doesn’t believe it.

“It’s basically allocating market share based on the special interest of the day, and that’s the gas industry,” Sanderson said. “The gas industry is a very influential lobby. As a result, some (legislators) are operating under a misconception that this will add jobs.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, suggested that the coal industry should quit acting like the misunderstood child who’s being picked on by bigger kids.

King said the coal industry hasn’t realized that the nation’s energy use is changing to more efficient, cleaner technologies. If it had spent more time and resources developing clean coal, the industry might not be in this situation, he said.

“The problem lies in the fact that technology has not kept up,” King said. “In a free-market economy, finding the next best mouse trap is oftentimes motivated by necessity, and the survival of the coal industry in the United States is totally dependent on technology.”

The entire proposal isn’t driven by a need to do what’s right for the environment or what’s best for consumers, but easiest for government, cheapest for Xcel’s shareholders and anti-fossil fuel for environmentalists, said Sen. Al White, R-Hayden.

He said the coal industry has been investing in clean coal technology for years, saying there are cheaper alternatives to converting to natural gas until that technology is available, such as pollution scrubbers added to power plants.

“What’s really happening here is the enviros don’t want to see the continued use of coal, period,” White said. “What they’re doing is picking off the weakest animal in the natural resources herd, and once that’s done they’ll try to isolate oil and natural gas. They’re trying to hamstring coal and they’re using natural gas to help them.”


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