Colorado coal counties try to plan for unsure economic future

Conference aims to help coal-reliant communities draft new economic road maps

RBC I From the Western Slope of Colorado, to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, to the mines in Appalachia, communities heavily reliant on coal production are facing a new economic reality: If the viability of those mining jobs is waning, what does the future hold?

Many of those communities are proactively seeking strategies to deal with the fallout from energy providers moving away from fossil fuel and toward renewable sources like wind and solar.

Last week in Denver during a three-day conference convened by the National Association of Counties, some of those communities came together to share their plans. Teams from Montana to New Mexico and some from the Appalachian area presented their road maps, many a work in progress, to a more secure economic future.

Rio Blanco was one of the western Colorado counties that sent representatives. People from Routt, Moffat, Delta and Montrose counties also took part.

“It’s an opportunity to drill down and create an action plan. That will be the ultimate end game from the event,” said Jack Morgan, a community and economic development program manager with the counties’ association.

Regional representatives from the U.S. Department Economic Development Administration discussed how communities affected by the coal industry downturn are spurring business with the help of federal grants, matched by state and local dollars. Employment and local tax revenue have taken hits as coal companies file for bankruptcy or see demand decrease due to dropping prices of natural gas, solar and wind power.

Intensifying worry about climate change, fueled by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, is also driving utilities, cities and states, including Colorado, to cut back on coal and gas and aim for a carbon-free future.

A bill passed by the legislature Friday codifies Xcel Energy-Colorado’s goal of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions to 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. The bill, which reauthorizes the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, also addresses providing transitions for displaced workers.

Colorado is the 11th-largest coal-producing state, with six coal mines and 1,236 workers, according to the Colorado Mining Association. Production dropped in 2018 to 14.3 million tons from roughly 15 million tons in 2017.

About 47 percent of the state’s electricity comes from coal.

As market trends and environmental concerns reshape the energy landscape, counties like Rio Blanco are taking stock of all their resources. The Deserado and Colowyo mines are important sources of area jobs and revenue, said Rio Blanco County Commissioner Gary Moyer.

“To lose coal is a huge loss, and especially combined with the pressure on oil and gas to go away,” Moyer said. “Eighty-five percent of our property taxes come from oil, gas and coal.”

Moyer said he fears a new law overhauling Colorado’s oil and gas regulations “will be devastating” to the industry in Rio Blanco County.

The legislation, Senate Bill 19-181, was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in April and makes public health, safety and the environment a priority when considering development. It also clarifies that cities and counties can exercise their land-use powers to regulate drilling and impose stricter rules than the state’s.

Moyer and Debbie Morlan, the Rio Blanco County sales and use tax administrator, said tougher regulations aimed at cutting emissions from energy development, particularly along the Front Range, will hurt the economy in Rio Blanco County and other parts of the Western Slope.

“We feel like what is happening is some of those bills do not fit our area,” Morlan said.

In other parts of western Colorado, several elected officials have called on state officials to strengthen air-quality standards statewide.

While frustrated with what they view as unnecessary economic roadblocks, Rio Blanco County participants said they’re working to diversify and expand businesses while also providing more amenities, such as child care and housing.

“We don’t have a choice. We just have to move forward,” said Lisa Cook, Meeker town manager.

Tiffany Pehl, with the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, said she’s waiting to hear from the U.S. Economic Development Administration about the area’s designation as an economic development district. That would help the communities explore things like whether producing carbon fiber from coal or turning beetle-kill timber into products are among feasible ways to strengthen the local economy.

“We’re not under the impression we’re ever going to be able to replace our property tax base completely,” Morlan said, ” and one of the things we talked about during this is taking baby steps, little bites. Basically that’s where it’s going to come from.”


Originally published May 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.