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Congress hears debate on future of coal in Colorado and elsewhere

Author: Tom Ramstack - July 24, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

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Monte Miller loads up a bucket of coal at his home in Bayfield, Colo. Miller purchases coal from Hay Gulch Coal in La Plata County. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald via AP)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton walked the middle ground Tuesday while Republicans and Democrats clashed during a congressional hearing on whether coal should remain a major source of electrical generation.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources called coal an environmental and health hazard. But Republicans said new and cleaner coal technologies offer economic benefits that make continued mining worthwhile.

“It’s not a push back and forth in terms of energy or carbon products,” said Tipton, a Cortez Republican representing western and southern Colorado. “I think we have the capacity to do both.”

Colorado was the  nation’s 13th largest producer of coal in 2016, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says. It also remains a major fuel for electrical generation in the state. Eleven coal mines operate in western Colorado.

However, Colorado also is a leader in developing and switching to alternative fuel for electrical generation, such as natural gas, solar and wind energy.

President Donald Trump made ending the federal “war on coal” a major theme of his 2016 presidential campaign, and since his rise to the presidency has taken steps that some critics see as propping up coal at the expense of cleaner energy sources to reward loyal voters in coal-producing states.

Gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis and other Colorado Democrats are calling for the state to move further away from coal to different energy sources. Xcel Energy Inc. the state’s largest power utility, has been pivoting from coal power production for years with encouragement from state laws, and announced a plan last month for a bigger switch to alternative energy.

Tipton asked mostly about the economic impact from changes in the coal industry, such as how prices for consumers will be affected and whether miners will lose their jobs.

Randall Atkins, chief executive officer of Sheridan, Wyoming-based Ramaco Carbon, said new industrial uses for coal are “synergistic” for the job market.

“We see this as a rising tide carrying all boats, so to speak,” Atkins told Tipton.

His company uses carbon resins from coal to develop new products for the manufacturing industry, such as building materials, artificial limbs, automobile and aircraft components.

“There certainly can be job creation within the coal industry,” Atkins said.

Julian McIntyre, chief executive officer of Arq, a British company that plans to convert coal dust and waste into a high-energy, low-cost fuel, said previous problems with coal can be avoided.

“We can clean up America’s coal waste while delivering a new source of cleaner energy” McIntyre said.

His company estimates that more than 10 billion tons of coal waste has been discarded in the United States, much of which could have been re-used as a fuel for electrical generation.

Arq’s patented technology crushes the coal waste into tiny particles that release larger amounts of energy when burned than traditional coal, he said. Arq is building its first plant in Kentucky in partnership with coal producer Peabody Energy Corp.

Other witnesses blamed increases in coal mining during the Trump administration for a rise in environmental hazards.

“Now we’re seeing a 25-year high in black lung cases,” said Vernon Haltom, executive director of the Naoma, West Virginia-based environmental group Coal River Mountain Watch.

Blasting used by mining companies to extract coal coats nearby communities and residents’ lungs with harmful dust, which has dealt West Virginia a “cruel hand” of health hazards, he said.

In Colorado, government and industry executives interviewed by Colorado Politics foresaw a bigger role for alternative fuels in the state but a significant, continuing role for coal as well.

“We’re seeing an aging coal-generation fleet in Colorado and across the West,” said Heatheryn Higgins, spokesperson for the Colorado Energy Office, a state agency. “At the same time, rapid technological innovation has provided the market with cheap, abundant natural gas and lowered costs for wind and solar generation. We support utilities like Xcel that are looking for affordable options for ratepayers. Coal is still part of the mix here and Colorado coal continues to have an export market.”

Stan Dempsey, Jr., president of the Colorado Mining Association, said, “With significant lease expansions at Colowyo and Mountain Coal’s mine in Somerset, (Colorado) will continue to produce coal, some to be used in Colorado and some exported to other parts of the U.S. and around the world.”

Some of the harshest criticism for a change to alternative fuels came from Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president of the Denver-based libertarian public policy foundation Independence Institute.

“Jared Polis’s 100 percent predominantly industrial wind fantasy will cost Coloradans $45 billion just for the transition away from hydrocarbons,” she said. “Add in millions more for transmission lines, stranded assets, hundreds of thousands of acres of land and destroyed view sheds across the Front Range.”

She said a big switch away from coal could create “an economic boondoggle” for utility customers.

“If we aren’t smart enough to use it wisely for electricity generation then developing countries will,” Cooke said.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack