The timing remains unclear, but the end result appears to be certain for the Trapper Mine near Craig.
The coal mine, a supplier to the nearby Craig Station power generating plant, is expected to shut down as a result of the plant’s planned closure in the coming decade. The mine’s closure is expected somewhere between 2026 and 2030, its president says.
“That (plant) is our sole customer, so when the plant shuts down that will certainly end Trapper as we know it,” Michael Morriss said in an interview Tuesday.
Last week, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the power plant’s operator and co-owner, announced that it plans to close the plant by 2030, along with the Colowyo Mine, another local coal mine that also supplies the plant.
While Tri-State is the sole owner of Colowyo, it is only a partial owner of Trapper. Tri-State’s chief executive officer, Duane Highley, said last week that Trapper’s future would have to be decided by its board but he expected it would have a hard time remaining open after the market for its coal disappears.
Trapper employs about 185 people. Morriss said how long Trapper will operate depends on how long the Unit 2 generating facility at the power plant continues to operate.
Trapper, a surface mine, was opened to supply units 1 and 2 at the plant, and produced about 2 million tons of coal last year, Morriss said. Both the mine and those units are owned by multiple utilities. The plant also has a third generation unit that was opened later, and is owned only by Tri-State and supplied by Colowyo.
Even before last week’s announcement, Unit 1 was slated for closure by the end of 2025 under an agreement with regulators and conservation groups to address regional haze issues.
Last year, Oregon utility PacifiCorp, a co-owner of Unit 2, proposed shutting down that unit by 2026, but when it actually will close is up to all of its owners.
“Right now all the owners don’t have agreement on when that date is,” Morriss said.
He said the mine currently has a five-year contract to supply the power plant that expires at the end of this year, and is likely to get another five-year contract ending at the end of 2025. After that he expects the mine to secure year-to-year contracts up through the time Unit 2 is shut down.
The mine’s majority owner is Arizona utility Salt River Project. Besides Salt River and Tri-State, PacifiCorp and the Platte River Power Authority in Fort Collins also have stakes in the mine. Xcel Energy has an interest in the power plant but not the mine.
Morriss thinks Trapper’s impending closure was to be expected.
“I’ve been kind of telegraphing since May for sure with the legislation that was passed at the state level for Colorado that our future was uncertain,” he said. “I felt like we could go through 2025 but past 2030 was a question mark based on the legislation that was passed.”
Lawmakers last year approved several bills addressing climate and energy as Gov. Jared Polis released a plan for the state to reach 100% renewable energy by 2040. One bill set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado by 50% in 2030 compared to 2005 levels and required air-quality regulators to develop rules limiting carbon pollution.
Based on that, Tri-State’s announcement last week “was kind of confirming what we felt was already going to happen,” Morriss said.
Tri-State cited both regulatory and market factors for its decision, pointing to falling prices for renewable energy that are helping it absorb the costs of shifting from coal-fired power earlier than planned.
“Certainly the market is driving some of this, Morriss said, before adding, “Colorado is not necessarily coal-friendly so that certainly hasn’t helped.”
Trapper workers belong to the International Union of Operating Engineers, and Morriss said a collective bargaining agreement includes language covering severance for employees.
He said about a third of miners there should be old enough to retire by the time the mine closes, and another third may or may not be able to do so depending on their personal circumstances, but the remaining workers are young enough that retirement won’t be an option.
“That bottom third is the one that I’m most concerned about, but those are the cards that have been dealt,” he said.
The Trapper jobs that will go away will be in addition to the 253 at the power plant and 219 at Colowyo that also will be lost over time as the plant shuts down. Morris believes the loss of the Trapper jobs will hurt the Craig area even more than in the case of the Colowyo ones because the Trapper Mine is closer to the town.
“There’s no way around it, it’s going to be an impact to the community down the road,” he said.