Moffat County's economy depends on coal. That fact more than any other has fueled the recent controversy over the Colowyo Mine outside the county seat of Craig. Two months ago, a judge ordered a re-do of a 2007 review on a plan to improve Colowyo. That decision came as a result of a lawsuit brought by WildEarth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit group.
Since then, residents have taken to town meetings, editorial pages and even liquor shelves to defend what they see as an industry being unfairly punished. Here's some context behind those moves in Craig.
A county off the beaten path
Moffat County and Craig sit in the most northwest corner of Colorado. It's "a little bit off the beaten path," the county tourism organization says, but also home to "two million acres of pristine public lands and free-flowing rivers." From Craig, Steamboat Springs is about 41 miles to the east. Denver's about a 3.5 hour drive to the southeast via US-40 and I-70.
About 13,300 people live in Moffat County--along with the enormous herd of 16,000 to 17,000 elk that winters between Craig and Steamboat Springs. Mining is the third largest employer there, behind retail and local government. The Trapper Mine and the power-generating Craig Station sit adjacent to each other just outside Craig. The Colowyo Mine is located farther to the southwest, on Hwy. 13.
Not only are mining jobs some the most common in Moffat County, they are also some of the best paid. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says jobs in mining paid 40 percent more than the average annual income in 2013.
"I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that these are high-value union jobs," says Professor Andrew Gulliford of Fort Lewis College, who writes on environmental issues in rural areas. "Coal miners can afford new cars and nice houses. None of that is replaceable by environmental kinds of things like tourism, which is a service industry."
Recalling a troubling precursor
On May 2, 1982, Exxon Oil pulled the plug on a massive plan to extract shale oil outside of Parachute, Colorado. Some 2,100 employees involved in the project lost jobs overnight. The event -- which came to be known as Black Sunday -- sparked a mass exodus from the Western Slope.
Gulliford, who authored a history of the shale bust called "Boomtown Blues," says Moffat County was far from immune. Over the next nine years, the county's population nose dived 20 percent. Even today, it hasn't regained its peak population.
Gulliford doesn't expect that coal would ever bust quite like shale oil did, but he can imagine a gradual decline for the crucial local industry. "We continue to use coal and China uses a lot of coal, so it won't be like driving your Cadillac off a cliff," he says.
Now a declining industry
In fact, coal production in Colorado is at a 21-year low according to the Energy Information Administration. Production in the northwest corner of Colorado reflects the state-wide decline. Between 2006 and 2013, coal mining in Moffat County dropped 46 percent.
No one factor can explain such a dramatic drop. Plummeting natural gas prices have inspired many utility companies to switch to natural gas. New regulations from the EPA have also hastened that transition by regulating pollutants common to coal like mercury and sulfur. Accidents have also played a role. Elk Creek Mine near Paonia, Colorado shut down in 2013 after mine fires forced operators to abandon it. The mine has yet to reopen.
Colorado's coal industry will likely face even greater pressure if Obama's Clean Power Plan passes legal hurdles. The plan takes aim at carbon dioxide emissions. Since coal emits twice the carbon dioxide as natural gas according to federal figures, officials expect the plan will further curtail coal production in the western U.S.
Those fears help explain some of the recent actions of leaders like Moffat County Commissioner Frank Moe, who took to YouTube to promote meetings defending the Colowyo Mine and Tri-State from the WildEarth ruling.
But even as he defends the coal industry, Moe has led Moffat County's effort to move beyond a coal-dependent economy. The county was one of six to participate in the National Association of Counties' Innovation Challenge for Coal-Reliant Communities earlier this year.
“We wanted to really emphasize how important our local energy industries are to us now, and in the future," he told the Craig Daily Press. "But it’s prudent to diversify your economy.”
So for the time being, coal will continue to define how people live and work in Moffat County.