Mine jobs a concern in plant conversion bill

DENVER – Natural gas workers may see some of their jobs return, but it could come at the expense of coal miners under a bill approved in the Colorado House on Monday.

A measure that would convert several Front Range coal-fired power plants to burning natural gas not only is designed to help clear the air, but also boost natural gas production in the state by 15 percent.

But some lawmakers, even a handful who voted for House Bill 1365, were concerned it would cost the state coal mining jobs.

Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said that cost would be minimal because about 71 percent of the coal mined in Colorado ends up out of state.

The same can’t be said for natural gas, he said.

“This one piece of legislation will increase the demand for Colorado natural gas,” King said. “That is Colorado money going to Colorado kids, to Colorado schools, to Colorado higher education. Why should Colorado not use Colorado’s blessings for the benefit of Coloradans?”

Other legislators, however, said it was unfair to help one industry at the expense of another.

Rep. Kathleen Curry, an unaffiliated lawmaker from Gunnison, said there are two coal mines in her district that could be adversely affected by the measure. Those mines supply coal to two of the Xcel-owned power plants that are to be converted to natural gas, she said.

“Those are real workers in my district,” Curry said. “Now we have the heavy hand of the state telling us which way to go instead of market factors.”

Despite those arguments, the measure passed on a 53–12 vote. It heads to the Senate for more debate.

In addition to Curry, two other Western Slope lawmakers voted against it: Reps. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs.

The measure, conceived by Gov. Bill Ritter, is designed not only to help the Denver metropolitan area address pollution problems, but also help an industry hard-hit by volatile gas prices that have fallen from as high as $13 per thousand cubic foot to under $3 during the recession.

At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the federal Clean Air Act requires the state to submit a new plan to address Front Range haze. If it doesn’t, the EPA says it will write its own, lawmakers said.


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