Power plant conversion bill cleared by panel

A measure designed to boost jobs on the Western Slope and help clear the air along the Front Range by converting coal-fired power plants to natural gas easily won approval in a House panel Tuesday.

The measure, House Bill 1365, has the support of natural gas companies, environmentalists, Democrats and, yes, even Republicans. Two Western Slope Republicans, Sen. Josh Penry of Grand Junction and Rep. Ellen Roberts of Durango, are co-sponsoring the measure with two Democrats, including Sen. Bruce Whitehead of Hesperus.

Evan Dreyer, Gov. Bill Ritter’s spokesman, said the measure ended up in committee only hours after being introduced because lawmakers are about to start deliberations on the annual budget, which takes weeks, and the governor’s office wanted to have a hearing so that the measure wouldn’t be unnecessarily delayed.

Penry said he couldn’t speak for why it was in the House Transportation & Energy Committee so quickly, but that it wouldn’t happen in the Senate.

“We will proceed deliberately, allow the tough questions to be asked and answered, and do this the right way,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m carrying the bill. To make sure this is done right.”

The bill, dubbed the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, calls on Xcel Energy to convert 900 megawatts of power production by plants in the Denver metropolitan area from coal to natural gas by 2017.  Penry has said it would increase the state’s natural gas production by 15 percent at a time when it could use the boost.

Penry and other lawmakers say the power company is on board with the bill because of stricter clean-air rules being considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The measure has wide support, but representatives of the coal industry told the House panel it should wait before the state knows exactly what the impact would be on jobs in that industry.

The Colorado Mining Association says the preponderance of the coal extracted from Colorado mines, about 22 million of the 32 million tons in 2008, is exported out of state. Still, coal supporters said the bill would affect mining jobs here.

Terry Ross, western regional vice president for the American Coalition of Clean Coal Electricity, told the committee the bill seems to be solely designed to benefit Xcel at the expense of others. He called for the measure to be turned into a study.

“Everything in here is skewed toward the utility, looking at what’s best for them and not what’s best for air quality or what’s best for your constituents,” he said. “It’s a win-win every time for them.”

Xcel spokesman Tom Henley said the measure would not affect the utility’s plan to shut down the Cameo Station plant near Grand Junction.


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