Court allows suit by backers of coal-fired power plants

A court will hear the merits to a challenge to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission’s plan to convert coal-fired natural gas plants to natural gas.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado can proceed with its suit against the utilities commission.

The associated government, of which Mesa County is a member, filed suit in 2011, alleging that the PUC’s approval of Public Service Co. of Colorado’s plan to switch from coal to natural gas-fired plants to generate electricity was defective.

The ruling “is a big shot in the arm,” Mesa County Commissioner Craig Meis said. “It’s a big victory for our five-county region. Now these items can be heard in a true court of law.”

Meis represents Mesa County on the associated governments board.

The decision by the Public Service Co., which operates in Colorado as Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based utility, was an outgrowth of legislation approved in 2010.

Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said the ruling was merely procedural, “a step that needed to be taken to define where the case will be heard.”

House Bill 1365, the “Clean Air Clean Jobs Act,” passed through the Legislature in 17 days and was signed by Gov. Bill Ritter, and set the basis for the Public Utilities Commission’s ruling.

Critics of the ruling at the time said two of the three PUC commissioners — Commission Chairman Ron Binz and Commissioner Matt Baker — should have recused themselves because of their involvement in crafting the legislation and closed-door dealings with the utility.

Northwest Colorado is a major supplier of coal, and the Piceance Basin also holds vast reserved of natural gas.

The legislation “picked winners and losers,” Meis said, rather than allowing the market to determine the better source of fuel for power generation.

The Colorado Mining Association called the Supreme Court ruling a victory for the local governments “and the coal miners who stand to lose their jobs.”


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