Coal Industry In Colo. Fights Gas-Conversion Plan

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In Colorado, natural gas is waging war against coal. One of the nation's largest public utilities is planning to retire its aging coal-fired power plants and replace them with cleaner-burning natural gas. State regulators are expected to decide on the plan Wednesday. This coal-to-gas transition is also being closely watched around the country as utility companies brace for new, tougher federal emissions controls.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A battle between coal and natural gas is playing out in Colorado. Today, state regulators there are expected to vote on the plan by a local power company, Xcel Energy. It plans to shut down its old coal-fired plants and replace them with cleaner burning natural gas. The state's coal industry is fighting that plan.

Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC has more.

KIRK SIEGLER: Remote Northwest Colorado is energy country. There's always been a lot of oil and gas drilling, and from here looking out at the Trapper Mine outside of the town of Craig, it's clear that coal mining is also still big here. In fact, this is one of four coal mines in the area that help power the region.

Ms. TISHA MANN: I think the coal mines are just - they're stable.

Mr. DOYLE MANN (Employee, Peabody Colorado Coal): Because we have a vast amount of coal reserves just right here in Northwest Colorado.

SIEGLER: Seated in their modest kitchen in Craig, Tisha and Doyle Mann say the natural gas companies have come and gone over the years. Many of this area's gas rigs recently moved to new finds in the Northeast. So they feel lucky that Doyle has a steady job working underground at Peabody Coal's mine nearby.

Ms. MANN: This is our way of life, you know. This is what we came to Craig for. It's made us a good living. It's made a good family. We're - I'd hate to see, you know, any of that go away.

SIEGLER: But the Manns worry it might. Two hundred miles away in Denver, a plan by one of the nation's largest utilities, Xcel Energy, could reduce demand for coal mined locally. Colorado's new Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act requires utilities to come up with plans to cut pollution from power plants.

Mr. MARK STUTZ (Spokesperson, Xcel Energy): The option of doing nothing was not an option.

SIEGLER: Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz says the switch from coal to gas will finally bring Denver into compliance with federal air quality standards, cutting nitrogen pollution by more than 70 percent, according to the company. And even though a climate bill is basically dead, Stutz says the EPA could still write carbon regulation into the Clean Air Act as early as next year.

Mr. STUTZ: Doing it yourself in the way that you want to do it, because you know your systems best, to us seems infinitely preferable to have someone from the outside, the federal government come in and say this is how you're going to do it.

SIEGLER: Environmentalists, who have long fought to shut down coal-fired plants, agree.

Pam Keily of the group Environment Colorado says the impacts to the state's coal industry will be negligible because most of Colorado's coal is exported. But she has a broader agenda.

Ms. PAM KEILY (Legislative director, Environment Colorado): What we're doing in Colorado is a preface to what will hopefully be a national transformation around our electricity sector. And is coal really the answer for the future?

Mr. REVIS JAMES (Economist, Electric Power Research Institute): What's going on in Colorado represents an important case study, I would say, if you were another utility watching it.

SIEGLER: Revis James is an economist with the Washington, D.C.-based Electric Power Research Institute. He says utilities in states like Colorado - which have tough renewable energy mandates - are finding natural gas more and more appealing, because unlike coal, it can be brought online quickly when the wind stops blowing.

Mr. REVIS: And also, the capital cost of building a new gas-fired power plant is generally lower, significantly lower than the typical-sized coal plant that you would build.

SIEGLER: Xcel estimates power bills will rise by about two percent once the coal plants are shut down.

Now all of this is concerning to people like the Manns back in Northwest Colorado. They worry of a domino effect if Colorado's ideas spread to other parts of the country. So fearing the worst, Tisha says this fall, they cashed in some of their Peabody Coal stock.

Ms. MANN: Made an extra house payment, trying to get a pickup truck paid off so it doesn't hurt us so bad if we do get laid off.

Mr. MANN: We really don't have no plans on what else we could go do.

SIEGLER: There may still be time to figure that out. Even if state utility regulators give the final nod today, the first coal plant won't be shut down for seven more years. A lawsuit by coal-dependent counties in Northwest Colorado could push that date back even further.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

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