Six Colorado ‘coal counties’ could get a boost from Bennet bill

Author: Joey Bunch - August 8, 2017 - Updated: August 11, 2017

Coal countryA train near hauls coal mined from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin near Bill, Wyo.. (Photo by Mead Gruver/AP file photo)

Six coal-producing Colorado counties could get a boost in economic development and job training from a newly offered bill from Sen. Michael Bennet.

“Colorado’s coal communities have been hit hard economically by a long-term decline in coal demand that has accelerated over the last decade,” the Democrat from Denver said in a statement Monday afternoon. “This legislation would help these communities by spurring investment, job creation and economic growth through tax cuts and support for high-quality worker training.”

The Coal Community Empowerment Act would designate six counties in Colorado — among 90 across the country — as Coal Community Zones, which Bennet labels Coal Communities.

With such a designation, Delta, Gunnison, Las Animas, Moffat, Rio Blanco, and Routt counties would be eligible for “a powerful array of place-based incentives,” the senator’s office said.

“These communities have been hit hard by the downturn in coal prices and demand in recent years, and this legislation will help local workers and leaders strengthen and diversify their economies as they deal with the broader market forces that continue to pressure coal production,” a statement from Bennet’s office said.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee. According to Congress.Gov on Monday night, Bennet still had no co-sponsors.

A report released in 2015 by Western State Colorado University in Gunnison said the state’s 12 mines in 2001 produced 33.4 million tons of coal, but the nine mines still operating in 2014 dug up just 18.7 million tons, a 44 percent decline.

Most of Colorado’s coal is used to generate electricity, but the percent of electricity generated by coal has declined from 90 percent in 1990 to 60 percent in 2014, among other factors behind the decline.

“Facing these challenges on a local level can be extremely
difficult,” the report states. “The abrupt economic transitions can impose serious hardship on individuals and families, pose immense challenges to local government, and generate economic and political instability. It can divide communities rather than lead them to work together. In order to achieve the full benefits of exploiting nonrenewable resource endowments, economists recommend planning for the future, at all levels, from federal coal policy, to state management of revenues, to local planning for a post-coal transition when the resource runs out. Individuals, families, companies, advocacy groups, and governments all have a role in planning viable long-term options.”

To qualify for the Coal Community aid proposed by Bennet, counties would have to meet two conditions:

  • To have lost at least 50 coal mining jobs since 2011 from a workforce of less than 20,000.
  • Have more than 5 percent of its employed workforce in coal mining jobs that are vulnerable to declining demands.

The bill provides a $3,000 tax credit for employers who hire individuals who live or work in a Coal Community and $300 million in additional New Markets Tax Credits.

The bill also cites $1 billion in private activity bonds for low-cost loans to build facilities, as well as tax incentives to build or revitalize commercial buildings, with a raft of other potential tax breaks.

Students in coal communities also could apply for aid to fund education and training for good-paying jobs, while colleges and nonprofits could expand career training programs with the help of government grants.

Businesses also could apply for grants to train and hire workers.

“We have an obligation to provide our coal communities with the support they need to implement the strategies they’ve developed, so they can thrive again in today’s economy,” Bennet said.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.