State regulators on Friday gave preliminary approval to speeding up the closure of some coal-fired power plants in Colorado to address regional haze, a move that would result in the shutdown of the Craig Station near Craig no later than the end of 2028.

The action was proposed by conservation groups, but Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Craig Station’s operator, opposes it and says forcing closures of facilities is unprecedented under state and federal regulations to protect visibility. The action would result in the Craig plant closing a year earlier than Tri-State had proposed.

The Air Quality Control Commission’s action, which will be considered for final approval at its next meeting, also would accelerate the closures of the Platte River Power Authority’s Rawhide plant and Colorado Springs’ Ray Nixon Power Plant, also to the end of 2028. Those plants have had planned 2030 closing dates, according to media reports.

The commission’s actions came in its approval of a plan to address regional haze that impacts national parks and wilderness areas.

The federal Clean Air Act requires states to create and periodically revise plans for protecting visibility on those public lands.

In the case of the Craig Station, the action taken Friday applies to the Unit 3 generation station, the last one Tri-State expects to continue operating there. Unit 1 is scheduled to shut down by the end of 2025, and Unit 2 is to be retired on Sept. 20, 2028.

The plant’s impending shutdown also affects two local coal mines, Trapper and Colowyo. One of them, Trapper, is expected to close when Unit 2 shuts down. Colowyo supplies Unit 3.

Combined, the plant and mines employ hundreds of workers, and the plant’s shutdown is expected to have significant impacts on Moffat County’s economy.

While Tri-State operates the plant, it owns Units 1 and 2 with other utilities, and likewise co-owns Trapper Mine. It is the sole owner of Unit 3 and the Colowyo Mine, which supplies Unit 3.

The Air Quality Control Commission’s decision includes an allowance for the Colowyo Mine to remain open through 2031 if it can find other customers.

“I think that’s a potential option that we can consider,” said Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey. “As we stated in the hearing (Friday) … any option that would allow us in the short term to continue coal production provides additional transition time for the communities, so we think that’s important as we move through the transition in northwest Colorado.”

Conservation groups said accelerated closures will not only result in clearer air in national parks but will help in achieving Colorado greenhouse gas emission reductions mandated under a state law passed last year, improve public health, and save utility customers millions of dollars because of the falling cost of renewable energy when compared to coal-fired power.

“The Commission should be applauded for taking this critical step to improve air quality and reduce climate change,” Matthew Gerhart, a staff attorney at the Sierra Club, said in a news release. “The Commission’s decision … will speed up the transition away from highly polluting coal plants toward cleaner energy.”

In taking their action, the commissioners rejected an alternative proposal by state Air Pollution Control Division staff and utilities including Tri-State that among other things would have approved Tri-State’s proposed closure of Craig Station Unit 3 by the end of 2029.

“It must be noted that Tri-State, the other utilities, and the state’s professional staff all testified that accelerated plant closures were unnecessary to achieve visibility goals, and exceed requirements to achieve reasonable progress toward achieving visibility improvements under the regulations,” Duane Highley, Tri-State’s chief executive officer, said in a news release.

Tri-State says that on Dec. 1 it will submit an electric resource plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that includes an 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions associated with Colorado wholesale power sales by 2030.

Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said of Friday’s decision, “It just seems like every time we turn around we’re facing another shutdown or expedited shutdown for our coal-fired power plant and our coal mines.”

He voiced frustration over the air regulators’ action and added, “rather than taking things off the table, why not start putting something on the table that’s going to help our economy.”

Beck said conservation groups don’t seem to care — “they’re focused and they have an agenda and so be it, but it’s a little bit disheartening when you think about it.”

The state commission also signaled an interest in having the two units at Xcel Energy’s Hayden coal-fired plant in Routt County close by 2028 as well, and is expected to consider that later, conservationists say.

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