#Colorado’s #coal country searches for “the next thing” to keep communities afloat — The #Denver Post #ActOnClimate

One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best

From The Denver Post (Alex Burness):

The state embarks on a years-long effort to protect people, main streets and budgets

Colorado’s state government has made a promise not to leave behind the more than 1,000 people directly impacted by coal closures — and the thousands more indirectly affected, like electricians, truck drivers, security workers and others who serve the mines and plants. It approved the Office of Just Transition in 2019 to help with retraining or relocating coal workers, or paying them to retire early. (The office plans to expand into oil and gas in coming years.)

But this project isn’t something many people in coal-mining areas are even aware of, according to interviews with workers around the state. In fact, it’s only now getting any real resources: a couple employees approved in the 2021-22 state budget; a possible $15 million in seed funding through HB21-1290; and an extra $5 million annually through HB21-1312’s proposed elimination of corporate tax breaks.

“We are not going to insulate the state from change. Let’s be very clear about that,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who works closely at the Capitol on energy policy. “This is not going to be, ‘Hey, we want everything to be like it was in 1975 and it’ll always be that way.’ We have to help communities reinvent themselves, find the next thing.”

“Still trying to get our arms around it”

Colorado currently has seven coal-fired power plants and six coal mines, the largest of which is West Elk in Somerset, just east of Paonia. By 2030, the state expects there will be just one unit of one coal-fired power plant left — Comanche 3 in Pueblo — and anywhere from one to three mines.

It’s Wade Buchanan’s job to oversee the Office of Just Transition and figure out, among other things, how many workers the state will need to help across the 11 counties that are most likely to see the impacts. The state has no working estimate for how many will be indirectly affected by the coming job losses.

Montrose, Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Morgan and Pueblo counties are the highest priority, and there are 1,129 coal workers in those places now, the state estimates. The second tier includes 562 people in Delta (home to the North Fork Valley), El Paso, Larimer, Gunnison and La Plata counties…

here’s real urgency in the counties seeing the decline. Take Rick McGaughey, who on May 7 shut down Hays Drug Store, a prominent feature of Paonia’s main drag. For the first time in 115 years, Paonia doesn’t have a pharmacy, and the owners aren’t sure where they fit in…

Unlike other coal towns, this one isn’t dying. Paonia’s housing market is hot as retirees, second-home owners and remote workers have moved in, driving up prices by double from a decade ago. There’s a vibrant agribusiness and tourism scene, with fruit orchards and wineries and ranching…

“This has killed my district”

A hot housing market means stable property tax revenues, but not every town has that. State Rep. Perry Will serves Moffat, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, north of Paonia, and has seen what happens when coal declines and new business and people don’t move in.

“This has killed my district,” the Republican said flatly. He has little hope where he lives for the kind of reinvigoration happening now in Paonia.

In some counties, the coal industry is the largest taxpayer among all residential and commercial plots. It accounts for nearly half of property tax revenues in Moffat County. The state estimates it will take nearly $3.2 billion in new commercial property value — 10 times the value of the Denver Broncos’ stadium — to replace the cumulative tax revenue losses in Colorado’s coal counties.

Other Republicans who mainly represent the affected areas initially scoffed at the idea of an Office of Just Transition, calling it an insult and rejecting that a renewable-energy transition was inevitable. Now they’re coming around, with Will and Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale sponsoring the funding bill. It’s the best available option and fighting the transition has proved pointless, they said.

The few left in the mining business want to stick around — people like Mike Ludlow, president of Oxbow Mining outside Paonia. He’s one of three workers at the shuttered Elk Creek Mine. There used to be 380.

It’ll take several years for those three to restore the former mine site to its original state before closing entirely. His colleague, Doug Smith, stood next to him outside of a large office on site that’s filled with a lot of empty space and photos of the old days…

“This is not a dodge”

For all the fears already realized and families displaced, Colorado is at the vanguard of a national “just transition” effort, which is gaining popularity among unions. Colorado’s is a first-of-its-kind project, said Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the AFL-CIO of Colorado and chair of the Just Transition Advisory Committee…

Much of the $15 million pending in the legislature would be put to stimulate economic transitions in local communities. House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar from Pueblo said Colorado needs to support those communities hiring people like Wade Buchanan to figure out their respective next thing. Rankin said it’s critical the state let the locals lead on that, not the other way around.

Spreading $15 million around the state won’t go far. Even the bill sponsors acknowledge that. A report released Dec. 31 by the state’s Just Transition Advisory Committee made no illusions about the state’s readiness, or lack thereof, to cure coal country.

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