What happens when up to 40% of a county’s workforce is linked to a single industry that will be gone in 10 years?
Moffat County is about to find out. Its version of Black Sunday came on a Thursday when the wholesale power utility Tri-State Generation and Transmission announced last week its plans to close all coal-fired plants in Colorado and New Mexico by 2030.
That includes the massive Craig Station power plant. It’s the first thing travelers see when they drive into Craig from the south. It dominates the economy as much as it dominates the view.
The Craig Station accounts for 472 jobs — 253 in the plant and another 219 at the local Colowyo Mine that supplies it. The closure will undoubtedly affect the future of the local Trapper Mine, which also supplies the power plant. But the impact is even greater. Bonnie Petersen, executive director of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, estimates that 2,100 jobs are either directly or indirectly supported by the generating station in a county in which the workforce is just 4,700.
Tri-State’s chief executive officer, Duane Highley, appropriately called Thursday “a solemn day,” as the announcement leaves Craig with an uncertain future. At least Craig has 10 years to figure something out. Tri-State plans to close its Escalante Station near Prewitt, New Mexico, by the end of this year, affecting 107 employees.
Naturally, Tri-State’s announcement led to some finger-pointing. In his State of the State address on Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis cited the “private sector’s turn away from coal” as the leading factor. But Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, promptly blamed the governor and the Legislature for manipulating the market by embracing 100% renewable energy as an achievable goal in the coming two to three decades.
But even within Tri-State’s membership of rural electric cooperatives, there was pressure for Tri-State to move away from coal-fired generation to cleaner, more affordable sources. This was first and foremost a business decision, prompted by economic factors as well as consumer preferences for cleaner (and more efficient) sources of energy.
We know that government’s efforts to promote renewable energy via subsidies and tax credits hastened coal’s demise. We think government, both the state and the feds, should therefore play a role in softening the blow.
The governor didn’t shrink from this obligation, saying the state would play a role in helping displaced workers retrain for jobs in the renewable energy field.
But retraining only helps Craig if there’s a renewable energy project on the same scale as the coal-fired plant. Retraining isn’t enough. The governor and the Legislature must give industry incentives to locate in Craig to take advantage of the skill sets there.
As the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported, Highley would like to see the state’s new Office of Just Transition meaningfully help Tri-State in the transition effort, and expressed the hope for “much greater funding to support its mission,” indicating that it has limited money to work with now.
That, then, should be a priority for the governor — making the Office of Just Transition a reliable entity that leaves no Colorado workers behind in this transition to 100% renewable energy.
The governor recently called for the state to put away more money to prepare for a downturn in the economy. Well, the downturn is already here for northwestern Colorado. The governor has repeatedly said that renewable energy is good for Colorado’s economy. Here’s a chance to prove it to a county with very little time to diversify its economy.
This isn’t just the state’s problem to solve. After all, much of the incentives for renewables were federal benefits. It’s going to take an enormous effort (and investment) from all governments to make an impact here.